What makes Dwayne Johnson such an appealing movie star is that he's never seemed hung up on being a movie star. Not unlike Jason Statham, he has a twinkle in his eye that suggests he's having way more fun at his job than most of his action-hero brethren. That sense of fun (self-effacing without being campy or ironic) is contagious: More times than not, he's more enjoyable than the movies he's in. But whether it's playing the Rock Obama on Saturday Night Live or spoofing macho-cop bluster in The Other Guys, Johnson doesn't push his stardom on you, happy instead to let us join him in being amazed that a wrestler ended up a legitimate A-lister. At a time when celebrity is constantly treated like an unholy burden, he carries his fame lightly.
What makes Hercules disappointing is that it doesn't seem to understand this basic principle about its star. Glum and straightforward, this swords-and-sandals brawler actually brandishes a little smarts to go along with the spectacle, but it may be the first Dwayne Johnson vehicle that sweats to prove to you what a mega-star he is. And Johnson, in the title role, plays along. Nobody needs a super-silly take on the mythical Greek hero, but I'm not sure we want one this ramrod, either.
Based on the Radical comic from Steve Moore, this Hercules is almost a revisionist Western for the Gladiator set. As the film begins, we're told of Hercules' famous back story: He's the demigod son of all-mighty Zeus who completed 12 seemingly impossible labors and blah blah blah. But soon, we're cautioned that we don't know the whole truth—a tactic also used in Maleficent—which puts us on high alert to suspect a twist.
Sure enough, a twist comes: This powerful Hercules is actual a mortal man who's allowed a legend to grow around him so that he and his band of fearsome warriors (including Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane) can earn greater sums as professional mercenaries. (They're like an A-Team that's easier to find and not on the run.) Hercules must keep his true heritage secret when he's hired by the aging Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to defend his land against an invading army led by the fearsome Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), who's believed to be a centaur.
The setup couldn't be more basic than that, and the shame is that Hercules never really becomes more sophisticated or intriguing than its ho-hum premise. It might help if the movie was directed by someone with a cockeyed take on the material. Unfortunately, the film was instead helmed by Brett Ratner, whose best movie was the first of three in which a loudmouthed African-American man kept yelling at a lovable Chinese man. Ratner's never been much of a visual stylist—although his X-Men: The Last Stand had better action sequences than you remember—and so he mostly copies the Gladiator/300/Clash of the Titans handbook for overblown battle scenes and hand-to-hand fights. The action is always utterly acceptable but almost never rousing.
What's somewhat interesting in Hercules is its exploration of how we reconcile the myth we've constructed of someone versus the flesh-and-blood reality of that person. Early on, Hercules has to hide his battle wounds from Cotys' admiring throngs, lest they suspect that he's fully mortal. But the pressure to live up to his demigod status weighs on Hercules, especially because he's also carrying the dark memory of his slaughtered wife and children, their murderers' identity still a mystery to him. For as much as Hercules has to inspire Cotys' untested citizens to rise up and become warriors to fend off Rhesus' legions, he also has to keep alive for himself the idea that he's actually someone worth following into bloody combat.
If all that sounds hokey, well, it really, really is—but normally Johnson has an almost magical ability for making preposterous characters empathetic. His ordinary joe in Snitch and his foolhardy born-again Christian in Pain & Gain didn't have much in common except for the actor's magnetic personality and his insistence that you ought to give them the respect they deserve. So it's frustrating that he can't quite crack Hercules. Here is a character who occasionally goes into battle wearing the pelt of a slain lion like it's a hoodie, and neither he nor the movie knows if that's awesome, ridiculous, or both. Johnson's indomitable charisma and likable nonchalance transcend whatever muscle-bound-lummox clichés you'd try to put on him. But here, all you see are the biceps without much of the humanity or wit underneath.
This is particularly sad considering Hercules' message. Sort of a Man Who Shot Liberty Valance circa 350 B.C., the film warns against believing the assumptions you have about anyone, especially those held up to be gods. (And it turns out Hercules isn't the only character who's not being straight with us.) But unlike in the past, Johnson can't make this hulking slab of granite really compelling or dynamic. Even the attempts at tortured nuance mostly fall flat. (McShane's job here is to offer Mickey-like advice to our hero's Rocky, and it tends to be of the "You've got to confront your demons!" variety.) Johnson has put together a respectable career slyly undercutting the self-importance of most blockbusters, but Hercules huffs and puffs to put him on a pedestal. Isn't that precisely what the film's arguing against?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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