Sitting through Hercules, Brett Ratner’s meathead interpretation of the bi-divine Greek hero, I found myself wondering: where did Joseph Fiennes go wrong? In 1998, when he made his name as a sensual love interest in both Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, it seemed like his career would echo that of his brother’s. His 2012 appearance as a conflicted priest on the excellent American Horror Story: Asylum indicated that perhaps there was hope for a revitalization. Instead, he turns up in Hercules wearing a terrible wig, playing a one note baddie whose main purpose seems to be to make the title character as portrayed by Dwayne Johnson, aka the Rock, look even beefier. What a waste.
Brett Ratner and the Rock are not exactly names associated with excellence in filmmaking. The hope then is that whatever action-packed, muscle bound explosion turns up on the screen is at least entertaining. Sadly, while Hercules has a few interesting ideas, it lacks the necessary fun to make it a worthy summer crowd-pleaser.
This version features the legendary hero as a master of self-promotion, complete with his own publicist, his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who spins mortal tales into the famed Twelve Labors for which his uncle has received the reputation for being the son of Zeus. How legends grow and why people need to believe them is one of the film’s clever choices as it plays on the associations of its star with his wrestling past. Joining Hercules and Iolaus are a hodgepodge band including Ian McShane as spotty soothsayer and Nicole Kidman-doppleganger Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as an Amazonian arrow slinger. Together they set out to save a kingdom, but things are not what they seem. Except to viewers who see the betrayal coming from miles away. If only the soothsayer watched more movies; he could have warned the others about plot contrivances.
Part of Johnson’s success as a movie star is his understanding of his target audience and willingness to be in on the joke. Whether heading the new G.I. Joe command or wearing a lion head as a hat, he gets who he is and what makes up his appeal. Beyond that, he generally seems to be having a good time. Why Ratner cannot follow suit is confounding. As with X-Men: The Last Stand, Ratner lacks joy in filmmaking, wasting the strengths of his star in trying to make him conflicted and complex. Solid B action movies should delight in their own chaos; Hercules, like its main character, seems too caught up in being taken seriously to enjoy the ride.