Rush Hour seems more like an anomaly now than proof that Brett Ratner had any sort of genuine story-telling ability at any point in his career. He’s still strong in terms of how he visually tells a story but people who complain about Michael Bay making terrible films should hold him up as Scorsese by comparison. Ratner is easily the worst of the worst when it comes to film-making in the last 20 years for anyone who’s had multiple films made at the studio level. He’s a hack, an American Simon West if you will, but he has found that Bay level where his films still make money for studios and thus he still has a career. Thus comes his latest opus, managing to take what could’ve been a profoundly subversive look at a Greek hero and turning it into a film that overstays its welcome by an hour (despite only being 90 minutes).
Hercules (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a Thracian mercenary who trades on tales of him being the son of Zeus, and his legendary mythical tasks, to give himself a bigger reputation than he might otherwise deserve. Together with a band of mercenaries he’s closer to Barney Ross from The Expendables franchise than he is a legendary Greek demi-god sired on high by the Thunder God himself. Tasked by a king (John Hurt) to train his poorly developed army and rout some invaders, he gets more than he bargained for and has to become the sort of hero that is told in stories.
And there’s a brilliant conceit in all of this. It’s so subversive of a story that it’s odd to think it wound up in Ratner’s hands. This is a brilliant, new take on the character that could work on any number of levels. Hercules as a cinematic character is always the powerful, strapping hero without fail. He’s the Ancient Greek version of Superman and every generation gets their own heroic version of a complicated character. This is one we haven’t had; Hercules as the sort of man who trades on these over-sized tales in a realistic manner and takes the piss out of the Greek mythos that inspired so many of the movies about him.
The film begins with him as a brilliant character in that it subverts all the usual tales of the legendary Greek character. He’s a con-man on enough PEDs to get a small African village swole, no doubt, but he’s a mercenary through and through. Herc trades on his over inflated reputation, and the help of his team, for money as a man of violence. It’s brilliantly subversive and the eventual character transformation, which this film has to lead to, should be brilliant in the hands of a director who knows how to work this sort of material. There are even moments in it where the legends of Greek mythos are exposed in tremendous fashion that they feel like accidental enclosures by Ratner.
You keep wondering when Ratner’s going to turn up the “magic and mysticism” angle and do the “oh it’s real by the way” that would’ve been the expected choice in a film like this with a director of Ratner’s “caliber” behind it.
If Ridley Scott had taken this project on it could’ve been Johnson’s Gladiator. Zack Snyder would’ve been another great choice, as well, and there are a handful of directors who could’ve taken this conceit and made it work. Unfortunately Ratner isn’t one of them and thus Hercules is pushed from having a great concept to start into a generic action film.
This is a fairly paint by numbers sword and sandals film set in ancient Greece and Ratner mainly does just enough story-telling to move from point to point as opposed to actually doing anything with it. This is a film with fairly spectacular action sequences but the heart of the story, of this mercenary who becomes the sort of hero he used to have his compatriots lie about to gain fame and fortune, is much more interesting than it’s given. A true storyteller would’ve delved into that aspect more, brought out the genuinely intriguing story of a hired hand that gets work based on the grand lies told about his exploits, but Ratner just leaves this as something to move the story forward.
There’s genuine intrigue in that angle early on and Johnson is game for it. This is the sort of film that could’ve been his Conan as “The Rock” has always been expected to be the next Arnold but never really has. This is definitely the type of film that Arnold would’ve done and his version of Conan has a lot in common with Johnson’s version of Hercules. His version of Hercules, and the way he changes from the sort of yoked up huckster to team leader, is incredibly intriguing and might be some of Johnson’s best acting work to date. He looks the part and this is an inspired choice in many ways for his career.
The problem is that the film doesn’t have the sort of direction it needs to sustain the sort of antagonistic way it deals with the 12 Labors of Hercules, among others. This film needs a director who understands the power of myth making, and how they get created, rather than a director who does what the studio tells him to do (and nothing more). This film has the feeling that Ratner did what he told as a hired hand, which is a recurring theme in his filmography, and there are no allusions to being an auteur to any degree. Even Michael Bay has delusions of being a great director in his work; Ratner doesn’t do anything that a commercial director or cinematographer hired as part of a “team directing” concept that doesn’t involve an actual director couldn’t have pulled off with equal aplomb,
In other, better hands this version of Hercules has all the parts of something that could be the film that makes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson into a genuine star. As is Hercules makes The Legend of Hercules look like a masterpiece.
Director: Brett Ratner Writer: Ryan J Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos based on the graphic novel “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” by Steven Moore Notable Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.