"HERCULES," 2 stars, Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Tobias Santelmann, Rufus Sewell; PG-13 (epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity); in general release
If “Hercules” has anything going for it, it's that January’s “Legend of Hercules” set the bar so low on Greek god epics that this one can’t help but be better. The leading man upgrade from Kellan Lutz to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson alone should be a major boost.
Yet despite an appealing cast and enough time to learn from the mistakes of its competition, “Hercules” still commits an unpardonable sin: it makes a legendary hero boring.
The difference in the film titles should clue you in on the problem. Unlike the earlier film, which references the mythic element of its source material, “Hercules” employs only the name of its protagonist. But it’s not just a stylistic thing. “Hercules” omits the legend part intentionally.
Somewhere along the way, the powers-that-be behind “Hercules” made the well-intentioned but ill-advised decision to tell a more humanized version of the Hercules story, with the idea that the “true” story of the hero would be more compelling and relatable. That appears to be the only justifiable reason to skip over the bulk of the Hercules legend and spend nearly two hours on a second-rate action story set in ancient Greece.
Following a hastily summarized backstory, “Hercules” picks up in the character’s adulthood as he and a band of loyal fighters are recruited by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to lead a ragtag army of farmers against a ruthless invader named Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). Men are trained. Battles are fought. Nothing fantastic happens.
Along the way, flashbacks and other mishaps call into question the true identity of our hero. Is he really the son of Zeus? Did he really perform all of those incredible feats, or are they just the dramatic ramblings of his nephew/press agent Iolaus (Reece Ritchie)? The massive lion-hoodie that Hercules wears into battle suggests the former, but the fact that his enemies manage to draw his blood in battle nods toward the latter.
Unfortunately, once the narrative arrives at its big twist two-thirds of the way through the film, the audience probably won’t care. This tale of Hercules is so pedestrian you wonder how the legend ever gained any traction in the first place.
This is a wasted opportunity. The Rock is as fit as anyone to play the mythic hero, and there’s certainly no shortage of CGI available to re-create the legendary exploits of the titular half-man/half-god. Yet, for some reason, director Brett Ratner opted to dismiss the familiar story and replace it with something completely forgettable.
(Actually, having Ratner at the helm does explain part of the problem, since he was also responsible for the much-maligned “X-Men: The Last Stand” back in 2006, a film rendered immaterial by the time-traveling exploits of this summer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”)
The cast does its best to overcome those bad behind-the-scenes decisions. But in spite of the best efforts of Johnson and Hurt, not to mention a supporting cast that features Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell, the bad script just makes their enthusiastic delivery feel like a noble failure.
Hollywood is now officially 0-2 on Hercules movies in 2014. The first try was just bad, but this one feels like a waste.
“Hercules” is rated PG-13 for generous violence and bloodshed, profanity (including, if you can believe it, one use of the f-word), and some fleeting female nudity; running time: 98 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.