You have to steel yourself before going to see a new movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s an intense feat of mental conditioning, on par with the way Mr. Johnson hyped himself up before stepping into the ring during his glory days as a professional wrestler.
You must do this because while The Rock may be an amazing movie star, he is not an equally amazing actor. His filmography is a mixed bag as a result. I did my best last week to contain my excitement for Hercules. I was convinced his new movie was going to be great for one simple reason: it starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Hercules. This is the role he’s been destined to play ever since he first stepped into the limelight and starting hitting things with a gigantic piece of wood in Walking Tall.
“I don’t even need to see the whole movie to tell you it’s going to be amazing,” I wrote on Friday, channeling The Rock’s self-aggrandizing energy as best I could.
I was wrong. Hercules is a terrible movie. But don’t worry, diehard Dwayne Johnson fans: this isn’t The Rock’s fault.
Before I go any further, I should warn you: I’m going to spoil some major plot points in Hercules. Consider this an act of mercy, because you should not subject yourself to this colossal disappointment of a movie. Really, director Brett Ratner should be apologizing for betraying all the good will that believers in The Rock brought with them into movie theatres over the past weekend.
Hercules is based on a relatively obscure comic by Steve Moore, so you’d be forgiven for not knowing what you were getting yourself into with the new movie. Its trailer promised, however coyly, a CGI-fuelled romp that involved Hercules fighting the mythical creatures he’s best known for fighting:
This trailer looks amazing, right? Of course it does. In less than 90 seconds, it somehow crams in footage of The Rock wrestling the Nemean Lion:
…and the the Erymanthian Boar:
…and plenty more epically-scaled goodness.
Enjoy those GIFs while you still can. Because as much as it pains me to break this to The Rock-loving public: the trailer for Hercules is cruelly, cruelly misleading.
Roughly 99 per cent of what you see in it takes place before the title card for Hercules drops. The rest comes from a scene towards the end of the movie where Dwayne Johnson once again comes into full Hercules form. And for one more fleeting moment, he’s played like the Grecian hero we all wanted to see.
Everything sandwiched between these two moments is a tragedy. And not the good kind of Greek tragedy, either. After the awesome-looking montage of The Rock wrestling a lion and sprinting full-tilt at a gigantic killer boar is done, the film cuts to a scene by a campfire. It’s revealed that everything you just saw is purely the stuff of fairy tales, exaggerated by Hercules’ nephew Iolaus to intimidate their enemies.
What follows is a bizarre attempt to humanize Hercules, much in the same way that Clive Owen was summoned to depict a historically accurate version of King Arthur ten years ago in another regrettable movie that was too clever for its own good.
Hercules isn’t actually historically accurate, of course. It’s just more historically accurate than the stuff of legends. He’s not the son of Zeus, and the goddess Hera doesn’t have it in for ol’ Herc. The entire pantheon of Greek gods, in fact, is merely the stuff of religious superstition.
Hercules, in turn, doesn’t have any superhuman abilities — unless you count being an immensely buff version of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s just a meaty guy who leads a ragtag group of warriors around Ancient Greece, performing random acts of violence for the highest bidder. His brothers (and one sister!) in arms, meanwhile, are a forgettable collection of action movie sidekick clichés. There’s an old guy who has some words of wisdom here and there, an acrobatic archer, a scrawny wise-cracking younger sibling, and a generic scruffy white dude who seems to only exist so he can abandon Hercules and then return at a climactic moment in the final fight scene.
I could go on. But what’s the point? The damage is already done. Brett Ratner and his team of yes-men dealt Hercules its killing blow the moment they decided to cast Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a movie that was meant to shrink an iconic hero down to regular human proportions.
I suppose that Hercules is a more intellectually engaging film than what I expected it to be because of how handily it denied its audience the fan service they were all hungry for. Maybe that’s what Rattner thought he was doing when he set about making this movie. But where was The Rock at the critical moment when he could have turned to his director and shouted: it doesn’t matter what you think?
I mean: Have you seen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? There is nothing about this man that is regular or human-sized. That’s the whole point. People don’t go to The Rock’s movies to experience some existential quandary about the illusory temptations of hero worship. They go to see Dwayne Johnson movies to indulge in hero worship.
That’s why this movie seemed so promising. It looked like it was going to be what 300 could have been in that other adaptation of a comic book based on a greco-roman legend had cast an actor with half of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s innate charm in the starring role. Or what Troy could have been if it capitalised on the gruff allure of a professional wrestler-turned-actor instead of Brad Pitt’s more exquisite brand of beauty. But no. Hercules had to go and ruin everything after assembling the perfect set of ingredients.
Now, let me be clear: none of this means that The Rock failed in his sacred duty to embody Hercules. As with many of his less-than-stellar films, the actor still brings his iconic brand of charisma and ultra-masculine ferocity to the role in full force. It’s just as fun to see Johnson walk around smacking things with a giant piece of wood today as it was ten years ago when he first did so in Walking Tall. There’s even one genuinely memorable moment when The Rock takes down an enemy on horseback with the perfect mixture of grace and hulking, brute force.
At the end of the day, Hercules the movie just isn’t good enough to live up to Hercules the man. And that’s the ultimate tragedy of this movie. It could have been so much more than what it is. Maybe, someday, we’ll get to see Hercules “The Rock” Johnson the way he was meant to be played. But not today.
So congratulations, Hercules: you made me question my belief. I guess that’s what you set out to do, on some level. But that doesn’t make the sting of this movie’s betrayal any less painful.