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Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Hercules (2014)

Director: Brett Ratner
Starring: Dwayne Johnson
Domestic Box Office: $72,688,614

Dwayne Johnson has joked that he's "franchise viagra" for his ability to join established movie franchises and rejuvenate their box office draw. It's a joke based in truth, as he's joined franchises like G.I. Joe, Journey..., and most famously The Fast and the Furious to great success, but it's a somewhat curious one since until last year's San Andreas, he hasn't had much luck headlining his own movies. He's tried his hand at action and comedy (sometimes combining them) in such movies as The Rundown, Walking Tall, The Tooth Fairy, Faster, and Snitch without ever lighting the box office on fire. It's crazy because Johnson is one of the most charismatic and charming actors around, an actor with the physical presence to sell action, and the comic timing to sell lighter fare, both of which are on display in Hercules, a film which might be considered a modest success, but couldn't quite get to the next level to become a blockbuster. With a $72 million domestic take, it became the 48th highest grossing film for the year 2014 and the 17th highest grossing film of that summer, nestled between Let's Be Cops and The Purge: Anarchy. Not bad, but for a movie that cost $100 million to make, it wasn't exactly great either - and a movie this fun should have been a much bigger hit.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is a demi-God, the son of a mortal woman but also the son of Zeus, a parentage which has gifted him with superhuman strength and the ability to perform deeds that no mere mortal could possibly accomplish. At least that's the story that Hercules is only too happy to keep in circulation, using smoke and sleight of hand and the constant promotion of his official storyteller Iolaus (Reese Ritchie) to keep the legend going so that he can sell himself as a mercenary to anyone who has the funds to hire him and his band of warriors - Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and Amphiaraus (Ian McShane). At the close of another successful job, the group is approached by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), sent by her father Lord Cotys (John Hurt), to engage Hercules' services to train an army to defend his holdings against a brutal local warlord. Promised twice Hercules' weight in gold, the group heads out to Thrace, where they begin training farmers to become soldiers so that they can battle against the forces of Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), who is said to be a sorcerer who commands an army of centaurs. Hercules leads the army against Rhesus, his legend giving them the confidence they need to head into battle, but discovers that all is not as it seems in Thrace and the court of Cotys, leaving Hercules questioning what it means to be him to be a hero and what kind of legend he wants to leave behind.

As a film, Hercules is a fairly delightful combination of the old-fashioned and the new. It's a throwback adventure picture which, even when the stakes are high, unfolds with the lightest of touches, giving the audience grand spectacle on a shallow investment. Hercules isn't the sort of film that has much in the way of thematic depth - in that respect it's much more a product of its director, Brett Ratner, than it is in Greek mythology, which is so steeped in the psychological that certain concepts are still named after figures and stories from the epic and tragic storytelling cycles (the Oedipus complex, the Electra complex, etc.) - sacrificing that for the more instant and fleeting gratification of scenes where a man grabs hold of a galloping horse and flips it over to knock the rider off and later engages in combat with three massive (and very angry) wolves. But it's modern in the sense that it has a firm sense of the ironic that actively works to bring an epic story down to earth. The Hercules of this film is not the legend, rather, he's a man who sells himself as the legend, promoting himself like P.T. Barnum to attract new customers and business and playing up to people's true belief in the existence of fabulous creatures and the tales of derring do. Like the legendary version of Hercules, the creatures that appear in the film are fakes created out of masks and costumes or optical illusions, allowing the film to have its cake and eat it, too, by incorporating the fantastical elements of the mythology while grounding the film in the "real" so that it can set itself apart by adopting the premise that it's telling the story behind the stories.

Hercules isn't a groundbreaker in any way and, if I'm being honest, some of the effects are a bit weak (I'm thinking, in particular, of the effects involved in the climactic battle sequence, in which this film set in antiquity finds a way to incorporate the very modern movie trope of making the destruction of a huge landmark part of the big action setpiece). However, as a light on intellect, heavy on entertainment popcorn movie, Hercules excels. Johnson is the perfect kind of actor for a project like this because he can go as big as the film needs him to (and a sword and sandals movie where the main character walks around in a hoodie fashioned out of lion pelt starts from a place of bigness) without looking ridiculous, able to take things that are inherently, inescapably cheesy and make them entertaining rather than lame. Having this year seen what Johnson is able to do in Hercules and what Eva Green was able to do in 300: Rise of an Empire, I long for some filmmaker to put them together in a grand epic built on a solid foundation of scenery worth chewing.

Hercules is a fun movie starring an actor that audiences have come to embrace, released just a little over a year after one of his biggest hits, which leaves one wondering why it received such a lukewarm reaction. While some might point to the fact that this was the second Hercules movie released in 2014, I actually don't think that could have been that much of a factor, since I doubt that awareness of the Kellan Lutz-starring The Legend of Hercules was all that high given that it dropped out of the box office top 10 a week after its premiere and quickly disappeared from theaters altogether. More likely, I think, is that Hercules came along a little too late. If it had come out somewhere in between 2007's 300 and 2010's Clash of the Titans, the last two hugely successful films of the type, I think it would have had better luck. Coming out in 2014, though, meant that it came out at a point when films like Prince of Persia, Immortals, Wrath of the Titans, and Pompeii may have diminished audiences' goodwill for sword and sandals movies. Add to that that it came out just a week before Guardians of the Galaxy, which would of course go on to dominate the box office for several weeks and give audiences their fill of an adventure story (albeit a science fiction adventure, rather than a Greek mythology adventure) with a cocky, charismatic lead. Timing is everything, and Hercules just didn't have it, which is too bad because it's a movie that delivers on what its promises: grand entertainment.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Yes! This movie is a blast!


Helen said...

I liked it a lot too when I saw it. We went because it was in English and I quite enjoy Dwayne Johnson's films. It was just a fun movie, not pretentious or serious. I do hope that people find this movie on their home screens.

Love the idea about Dwayne Johnson and Eva Green chewing scenery together...Hollywood--get on it!

Norma Desmond said...

It is a lot of fun, largely because of Johnson but also because of Ian McShane (who I now realize I forgot to praise).