What does Hercules mean to us today? It’s far from a dumb question and yet somehow Brett Ratner manages to ask it in a dumb way in his new film Hercules starring the Rock as Hercules.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like the Rock is the worst casting choice to play Hercules and it’s not like the guts of the story don’t work well.
Perhaps it’s better to start this review somewhere else. Come with me now on an adventure through time and space…
Hercules is a fascinating character. Over on the Ad Absurdum Podcast, Dr Ioannis Ziogas and I discussed exactly how fascinating he is. One of his key traits is as a civilising force, cleaning up the Earth of monsters (which are ‘like rabbits in Australia’). It’s this trait which feeds throughout different depictions of him. In the Kevin Sorbo television series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, we see him in this constant battle on the side of the civilised humans against the cruel, capricious gods and the unclean, uncouth barbarians. Sometimes, he even battled an alternative universe version of himself who had a goatee:
In the Disney version of Hercules, we see the same sort of idea: Hercules is the hero who fights for humans against the monstrous divine:
Ratner’s Hercules takes an entirely different approach. Rather than play the ‘Man v Inhuman’ angle, the film takes the ‘rationalisation’ approach: explain away the fabulous nature of the story to deliver an ‘historical’ approach. No longer is Herc in a battle with literal demons; instead, he is in a battle with psychological demons of his past. The many-headed hydra who grew more heads every time Hercules chopped one off? Actually a group of bandits who wore serpent helmets. The fabulous birth — son of the sky god Zeus and hated by the queen of the gods Hera? Actually, an Athenian orphan. Centaurs? Men on horseback. And so on and so forth.
In Hercules‘ hyper-rational world (which still, for some reason, includes a man of supernatural strength and a prophetic seer), stories of Hercules’ fabulous labours are just as well known. Hercules uses his own myth to inspire fear and terror in his enemies.
So far, so good. The audience and the in-world audience have a shared understanding of Hercules, and the film plays on that understanding to explore the idea of heroism. Who are our heroes, beneath the media gloss?
Ratner’s film never quite manages to engage with the questions it raises. Hercules is transported in time to 370BC where he’s now a mercenary who fights alongside a group of people with odd names. Hercules uses his fame as a monster-slayer (a reputation fueled by his story-telling nephew) to find paying gigs doing various people’s dirty works. When one of these gigs goes pear-shaped, Hercules finds himself torn between his desire to enjoy a comfortable life of wealth, or will he correct the problem he helped create? Obviously, he’s not going to turn his back on the problem and so we get a film.
The plot itself is fine and there are some solid performances — especially from John Hurt — but it’s never entirely clear why we’re watching a ‘Hercules’ film. It’s the same problem we found in Troy with Brad Pitt: the content of the film had nothing to do with the packaging of the film.
Oh, and the film includes an archer who jumps into melees. Seriously, why do films keep doing that?
If you’re after a way to kill 90 minutes, it’s not a bad adventure movie. But don’t expect it to answer the questions it raises.