Sometimes a big studio will release a film in the second half of summer on Comic-Con weekend, and then that big studio won’t show that film to the press until the last possible moment when they know for certain that the those people are in San Diego covering the convention. The reviews will come later than usual, after people stop caring. It’s all part of the plan.
Sometimes this is warranted. The studio knows the movie is garbage and they want to keep it under wraps for as long as possible. And sometimes the movie is Hercules starring Dwayne Johnson and you, the lone film critic sitting in the reserved section of a multiplex in Burbank on the Thursday night before the film’s Friday release, wonder why they felt they had to hide it away.
That hiding act is probably Renny Harlin’s fault. His The Legend of Hercules, having already arrived with a nearly soundless thud in theaters earlier this year, took the inherent ridiculousness, the B-movie energy, and the legacy of camp that sticks to Hercules-themed films, and he fashioned a generic, dull hero’s journey, one that bored the handful of ticket buyers who cared enough to show up.
This one, though, it’s got The Rock wearing a lion's face on his head.
It’s also got a different pedigree, the Radical Comics series from Steve Moore, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, which positions the demi-god as way more “demi” than ever before imagined. This humanizing approach suggests that the gods invoked and monsters slayed may be more legend than anyone ever considered, a kind of mythical branding campaign. To that end, Brett Ratner’s Hercules is grounded in ways you maybe weren’t expecting. He’s a tortured soul and mercenary, not a swaggering ego. His posse of warriors (Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie and Reece Ritchie) is more jocular than jockish, and the film is happy to have these characters by the hero’s side rather than treating them like steroidal fighting props.
The story is about fighting, though, because that’s what Hercules does in movies. This one involves an evil king and an untrained civilian army that must learn to save itself. If Hercules' legend can inspire them, whether he’s really half-deity or not, then his work is accomplished.
Ratner has taken the comic playfulness of his earlier buddy-cop films and attached it to a character not known for clever remarks or self-aware, contemporary attitudes. He's also figured out how to upsize the action and clean up the legacy of frantic, digital messiness that usually attends this sort of thing (thanks mostly to cinematographer Dante Spinotti who creates tight, comprehensible battle sequences). But mostly Ratner’s given his star the room to be the immensely likeable Dwayne Johnson when he needs to be, and the cartoonishly aggressive "The Rock" when the situation calls for it. Straddling boundaries of identity, the line between real guy and fictional badass, is something this actor has been doing his entire career. Pro wrestling, it turns out is the perfect training camp for a character that needs to be all things to all people. He's a perfect fit for a perfectly agreeable adventure as summer drags itself into its last act.