Aug 1, 2014

Hercules [2D] [12A]

Dir: Brett Ratner
Many people star in movies, but a true Movie Star is something different, something rare.  Being a Movie Star isn't always about being the most beautiful person or the best actor, though neither is a disadvantage, it's less readily definable than that.  A Movie Star is person who, without seeming to try, can become the centre of attention in every shot in which they appear, who can draw your eye even in the periphery of a scene.  It is perhaps not something you can learn, or even a transferable skill (Madonna, who can be incredibly compelling otherwise, is dull on film).  It is something that you have or don't have.  Dwayne Johnson has it.  He is a Movie Star.   

This, beyond his obvious physical qualifications, is why Johnson is perfect casting as Hercules.  He has an aura of otherness about him, thanks largely to his supernatural levels of charisma, it goes a long way to explaining why the other characters in the film might believe that he is a demigod.

This is where Hercules' story is perhaps more interesting than you'd expect.  It's never clear in this version whether he is in fact the son of Zeus.  The 12 famous tasks are referenced, but as tales told to build up the legend of this great warrior, who, along with his friends, is available for hire as a mercenary.  The film sees Hercules and his fellow mercenaries hired to help defeat a warlord, but finding that they may have been on the wrong side of the conflict.

Hercules is by no means a great film, but it doesn't have to be.  Nobody is coming to it expecting Oscar winning performances or the most creative screenwriting of the year.  It's a processed meal of a movie, but a processed meal is okay once in a while and this is a high quality one.

The cast is of a higher standard than the script deserves.  Johnson is as commanding a presence as ever, but it's his ease on screen that makes him so watchable, he puts across the same mix of strength and good humor as he does off screen.  He may not be challenging himself here, but you can't fault his energy or his commitment and while the dialogue can be risible he tries his best to sell it, and largely succeeds.  Johnson is clearly enjoying himself and this is something we can see in the rest of the cast as well, be it John Hurt's goatee, hamming it up as Hercules' employer, Rufus Sewell as Herc's right hand man, Ian McShane as a psychic with a vision of his own death, or Aksel Hennie as a psychotic silent warrior who was rescued by Hercules as a child.

Hercules is a boy's own movie.  It's largely about men, men hitting each other, for the most part.  Given that, it's perhaps a surprise to find that aside from Johnson the actor who makes the biggest impression is Cold Prey's Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as Amazonian archer Atalanta.  She doesn't have the deepest character; a quickly sketched tragedy in her past is what passes for motivation, but Berdal has great screen presence and acquits herself fearsomely in the action scenes, particularly when she has to use the blade on the end of her bow.  Berdal is a beautiful woman, and there's certainly something sexy about seeing her in action here, but it's refreshing that Hercules, while catering to a male audience, neither belittles nor objectifies her.  Atalanta more than holds her own, saving the men numerous times and never becoming a mere damsel in distress.

The action scenes are the centrepiece of the film and while, like the rest of it, they contain little you haven't seen before they're solidly executed by director Brett Ratner.  The cutting is sometimes a little fast and the brutality has to be dialed back in service of the 12A rating, but there is still a lot of fun to be had here.  While there is plentiful CGI employed one of the best things about the film's action is that, outside of larger crowd shots, the emphasis seems to be on practical stunts and effects.  The enemies that Hercules and his fellow warriors face tend to be human and this grounds the action scenes, giving them more impact.

The film has a reasonably  well developed sense of its own ridiculousness. Johnson's tongue is clearly shoved firmly in his cheek when he punches a man on a horse and says "Fuck centaurs" or, shirtless, bellows "I AM HERCULES" and rips his chains out of the stone floor they're secured in.  The tone is quite well judged overall; never too dark, never too jokey, but always possessed of a sense of fun.

While I was never bored watching Hercules it's also clear that it's not a great film.  The action scenes are competent and fun, but the choreography is a bit too standard for them to stand out as truly memorable.  The performances are solid all round, but none of them, even Johnson's, will acquire the iconic status of a Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger vintage).  The screenplay, while perfectly functional, has only a handful of decent lines and though it seems, through the question about whether Hercules is actually a demigod or the stories are more of a PR exercise, to have some interesting ideas, they are never fully explored.

Overall, Hercules is what it is.  It's a genre exercise, and what it does it does well.  It's a fun way to spend 100 minutes, no more or less, perhaps we undervalue that now.

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