Oh, Dwayne Johnson. What are we going to do with you? No, seriously, what do we do with a musclebound superstar with a great smile and hulking biceps? The amateur moviemaker within us says, “A lot,” but Hollywood hasn't seem to have gotten the message. And now, Johnson is Hercules, a role perfectly suited for his doorway-darkening physicality and PG-rated sensuality. Except that's not the Hercules we're dealing with. No, this Hercules has issues.
The movie begins with a narrator (one of many, with no explanation given) alerting us that the legend of Hercules is a lie. Instead, he's just a man, one with considerable ability, but whom leads a gang of mercenaries from village to village, finding riches by defeating “the bad guys” and accepting booty from “the good guys.” In one action sequence, the “mythical” Hercules lures henchmen behind what looks like a bunch of horse carriages, while his ninja assistants (played by the likes of Rufus Sewell and the fetching Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) help him brawl. Cheap tactics like this convince the baddies that Hercules works alone, and his legend spreads. Which is a believable tactic when we're talking about Dwayne Johnson.
The group arrives in Thrace, where Lord Cotys (John Hurt, embarrassed) seeks the help of the warrior against what he claims are a race of centaurs threatening their kingdom. Of course, they are not centaurs, because we learn early on that every myth of Hercules, including the monsters he battles, is based on fantastical fabrication. At one point early on, a king (Joseph Fiennes, TERRIBLE hair) asks if Hercules has proof he's killed the beasts that have threatened the kingdom; when Hercules shows him the bag of monster heads, he seems disappointed to see the human heads attached to them. Why you'd ever make a semi-realistic movie with Dwayne Johnson, particularly one where he plays Hercules, escapes logic. Even The Other Guys knew that if Johnson were to play a cop, he'd be the superest super cop that ever copped.
It doesn't take a genius to find out something is rotten about Cotys' aims. In fact, all it takes is a fool. It doesn't at all make sense why any characters have a single line of dialogue in Hercules, since the plot is so basic that you'll most certainly see this movie on a plane someday without headphones and not miss a thing as you fumble around on Words With Friends. Aksel Hennie, who is in Hercules' badass gang, is a loyal servant of sorts, and he doesn't even have a line of dialogue until the very end. The rest of the cast should have taken note, since every line is spat out with no nuance, merely serving a way to transition from one scene to the next. These men will need training, cut. I have a plan, cut. Whenever the film features actual actors talking, you can almost hear director Brett Ratner making mocking finger puppets behind the camera, opening and closing his hand repeatedly.
Are the actors giving actual performances? It's not clear: the movie never stops to allow the audience to feel anything but blunt force trauma. The only actor in the film allowed to create a real character is Ian McShane, and unfortunately he has no interest in this. The veteran actor delivers his lines like he were reading sweepstakes rules off a Coke can. In one crucial scene, he has to deliver a pep talk to Hercules from behind bars, but the two of them don't even seem like they're on the same set, nor does it seem like McShane's lips are moving. McShane also randomly closes the film with the sort of rambling, incoherent narration that suggests the studio attempted to wallpaper over a previously-worst ending, and paid him in cocktails.
This is ultimately a nothing movie, with only a few memorable shots in service of dream sequences that never receive a payoff. Most of the effects, reserved for monsters and beasts, are flat-out cartoony and unfinished. And the final battle, which seems truncated from something bigger and more ambitious, is a green screen nightmare. Johnson deserves better, but the sad part about it is that he doesn't seem to realize it. His smile is a million watts of charisma, and his size awe-inspiring. If the film were just him, wordlessly drop-kicking enemy soldiers and tackling lions as the camera kept a shot for more than three seconds, you'd have something at least in the vein of a Conan sequel. But the emphasis isn't on story, charisma, or thrills, but merely momentum. At 98 minutes, Hercules feels like a movie running for the exits in fear that you will dislike it. Johnson deserves a bit more confidence.