Dwayne Johnson’s Pec Project
Say what you want about Brett Ratner, but the man has got balls. As much as X-Men: Last Stand will be remembered for its leaden dialogue and thoughtless characterisation, it did make some admirably bold decisions when it came to killing off beloved characters. A similar dose of audacity goes a long way in this radical retelling of Hercules (inspired by Steve Moore’s comic), for while Ratner clearly relishes the chance to fiddle with Greek mythology, he does so with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
After a fleeting tease of Herc’s 12 heroic labours, the film takes little time to break from tradition. “You think you know the story of Hercules?” the teasing narration opines, “You know nothing”. And it’s not kidding; in spite of some affectionate references to the original Steve Reeves films, this reiteration could be less traditional than the hilariously misjudged Hercules in New York. Aiming to separate the man from the myth, Ratner has Hercules as an admittedly powerful beacon of hope, but not quite the demi-god of folklore – it’s even suggested that the killing of the Nemean lion was a team effort.
The story is also surprisingly bearable for a B-movie. At the behest of a compassionate princess (Rebecca Ferguson) and her father, The King of Thrace (John Hurt), Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules and his team of killers-for-hire are tasked with building an army to defend Athens from an ill-defined threat. After using the timesaving power of montage to train a formidable force, he soon discovers that things are not quite what they seem.
Elsewhere, this has everything you would expect from a Hercules movie: overly stern performances, one-note characters (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s single defining feature is her handiness with a bow) and dialogue as subtle as a fist to the mouth. The villain’s get about a minute each to outline their motivations, whereas essentially every character arc ends with a last-gasp save. Having said that, there are fun moments involving Rufus Suwell’s silver-tongued sellsword and Ian McShane’s fortune-teller, a man who literally welcomes his end with open arms.
Johnson’s is one of the more bruised, brooding interpretations of the demi-god, and there’s a Nolan-esque effort to humanise a campy character (flashbacks of Herc’s murdered family are frequently used to give the impression of depth). And yet, despite a lot of effort on Johnson’s part, Ratner only makes passing attempts to get under the skin of the demigod, leaving it unclear how much he has actually been changed by his experiences. However, if you’re here for preposterous set pieces and wilfully silly one-liners, you’ve clearly come to the right place. Ratner revels in the ridiculous - after giving a live stallion a suplex, Johnson grumbles the line “fucking centaurs” with a completely straight face. Miraculously, that’s not even the silliest thing that happens.
Despite aiming for a more pragmatic take on the character, this is best suited for joyously over-the-top Friday-night viewing, while Johnson puts a spiked wooden club to very good use.