Mixtapes. Mariah Carey’s ethnicity. Turducken. There are certain combinations that work so well together that we couldn’t imagine them continuing to exist any other way. Hercules stormed its way into 2014’s summer movie season with a 100 million dollar budget, an all-star cast and an original take on an old and familiar story that the film presents with a blend of action, comedy and drama. Despite looking like a perfect fit, these components go together as awkwardly as the lonely souls seated at the single guest table during a wedding reception.
Right out of the gate the film goes out of its way to establish itself as a realistic take on the well-known mythological characters, think of it as a Christopher Nolan batman series real world take on Greek mythology. The film introduces Hercules (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as a larger than life figure who is renowned throughout the land for being the demigod son of Zeus (yes that Zeus as the movie quickly points out) and conqueror of the Twelve Labors. The truth is that Hercules is a mercenary and the leader of a tacky band of misfit warriors who each played a role in the creation of and maintenance of the extraordinary Hercules legend. Hercules only supernatural ability is gaining a psychological advantage over opponents with his aptitude for spreading tall tales about his victories and physical prowess. We can think of Hercules as engaging in the superhero version of “cat-fishing”. Hearing of Hercules astounding feats a desperate Lord Cotys (John Hurt), ruler of Thrace, reaches out to Hercules requesting that he trains his sad sack army so that they may defend the kingdom from the evil warlord Rheseus. Hercules accepts the job and it is up to him and his mercenaries to whip an under qualified army into shape before the enemy can invade.
Considering that the film constantly beat us over the head with the idea that this version of Hercules was a man and not a myth, Dwayne Johnson spent a lot of time using punches and kicks to send enemies soaring extraordinary distances through the air like Gonzo after getting karate chopped for being fresh with Ms. Piggy. The over the top action sequences are by far the most interesting thing about Hercules, a film in which The Rock punches a giant wolf in the face. Be warned, for a pg-13 film Hercules spends a huge chunk of this movie racking up a body count tally on par with the Mexican cartel. Lions and wolves have their jaws ripped of their hinges, a man’s decapitated head soaring through the air and child murder are all examples of the colourful expressions of brutality in the film. The exaggerated nature of the violence makes the battles feel more like zany loony tune adventures rather than grim bloodbaths, so the imagery does not haunt us the way it would in a film like 12 Years A Slave.
Not all films are created equal but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Sharknado phenomenon has taught us that some films excel at being bad. Even as we watch ludicrous feats such as a man running straight up a tree or Hercules flipping a horse with one arm there is an overzealous sincerity bleeding through the cracks of this film that express its desire to be a good “good” movie while it has all the ingredients of a good “bad” movie. A perfect example occurs halfway through the movie during a battle scene where a chariot goes crashing through a band of enemy warriors. The chariot transforms into a death machine by unsheathing six foot blades on each side and slicing through the enemy lines while a heroic orchestral score roared in the background. This level of zaniness would not seem out of place if scored to the Benny Hill theme song. Had Hercules embraced how ridiculous it is the film would have been a more focused and enjoyable experience.
Going into summer blockbuster season, had someone asked me who the best performance by a “rassler” in a blockbuster film would be, I would have bet on the Rock without hesitation. Sadly, the Rock delivers the kind stiff performance that audiences expected of Dave Bautista in Guardians of The Galaxy. I find it inconceivable that a cast consisting of Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joeseph Fiennes and Peter Mullan did not produce anything more compelling than the one-dimensional characters that existed on the pages of their scripts.
Early on in the film Lord Cotys states, “How we view ourselves is of little importance. How others perceive us is important.” Unfortunately, Hercules views itself as a serious film and in doing so trips over its own feet. Despite a huge budget, fantastic cast and an original take on the story, the film fails to deliver anything of substance. The characters are not developed enough to elicit our emotional investment and the film often takes itself too seriously to embrace the lighter elements that hinted at the fun movie this could have been, which is disappointing because this film had all the tools to be exceptional. Hercules is the film version of that guy in high-school who despite having straight A-grades and a football scholarship ends up mopping the hallways of the school where he graduated. Sometimes life throws us lemons, sugar and water and we still can’t make lemonade.