It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the critical tide turned against Brett Ratner. He was never particularly respected but his breakthrough film Rush Hour was well received (and fairly decent). He didn’t make a truly terrible film until After the Sunset (his sixth), after which he was hired last minute for the rushed X-Men: The Last Stand. Before that film had even come out he was frequently mentioned online as one of Hollywood’s worst directors. He certainly shows all the signs of being a studio hack, but while he does on occasion, he doesn’t routinely put out complete garbage. This actually gives him a bit of a boost when it comes his latest film Hercules, as everyone seemed to be expecting it to be a steaming pile (the trailer didn’t help) so when it turns out to merely be a satisfactory action movie people are pleasantly surprised. Ratner deserves a little more credit than he’s given too, he’s avoided franchise fare recently, with his last film being the moderately amusing Tower Heist, and even though it concluded with the dire Rush Hour 3, he did create a successful movie series with 2 non-white leads, something still all-too rare. He’s continued to be mildly progressive (by Hollywood standards anyway) with Hercules too, casting Dwayne Johnson as the Greek demigod, a role that would unusually have been handed to a white actor.
Ratner’s take on the legend of Hercules, based on the recent comic Hercules: The Thracian Wars, also has a delightful wave of scepticism flowing through it. Only in its opening moments does it appear to be recreating the famed 12 Tasks of Hercules, with clips of Johnson briefly squaring off against some huge CGI beasts, before pulling an about turn and revealing this to all be a story his nephew is stringing to some pirates who’ve captured him. In this world, the legend of Hercules exists, but he’s a real person. The stories about him are all highly exaggerated versions of the truth, the monsters aren’t real (the hydra was a group of men in masks for example) but they choose to spread the stories that he’s the indestructible ‘son of Zeus’ as it helps to instil fear in their enemies. It’s a clever little touch that gives this Hercules more purpose than a simple retelling of the myths might. This extends to other aspects of the film’s world too, with there being an amusing running gag about a soothsayer’s (Ian McShane) inability to correctly predict things and subsequent attempts to fulfil them himself.
That’s not to say that this Hercules is some kind of phoney. He’s still a fearsome warrior with some remarkable combat skills (the manner in which he deals with an attacking horse is a stand-out comedy moment). Charisma-machine Johnson undertook an extreme training regime to play the role, and he’s never looked bigger. Here he’s the leader of a ragtag group of mercenaries with varying abilities (archer, knife thrower, err… storyteller) who are hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to train the armies of Thrace to fight against nearby warlord Rheseus.
Aside from the aforementioned myth-debunking, Hercules is not an intelligent film, with its plot essentially functioning as a showcase for a series of battle sequences. Ratner’s not going to pose a challenge to the likes of Peter Jackson but his combat staging is competent enough. Unfortunately, as I had suspected heading into Hercules, it’s yet another example of the ongoing problem of PG-13 violence. Here we have countless slashings, hackings and clubbings, all of which must be presented without a drop of blood. There’s nothing quite as obviously compromised as Pompeii but I’m really getting fed up of this.
Hercules is a predominantly straightforward film with a few good ideas up its sleeve. It takes a twist in the third act that’s hardly shocking or ingenious but I can honestly say I hadn’t expected. Johnson unsurprisingly owns the title role but if he’s truly to be the next Schwarzenegger (as he’s been touted for over a decade now) he really needs to find a film to match his talents, his movies have yet to reach Terminator/Predator/Total Recall levels. There’s nothing particularly special here, but Ratner’s myth-busting Hercules essentially delivers what it sets out to do in a brisk 90 minutes, which in a world full of overly-bloated blockbusters that verge on 3 hours, makes it almost as fat-free as its star.