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The Starbucks that I sometimes frequent on the way to work has new cardboard cup sleeves. They're snot green and advertise something called the "Steep Your Soul" campaign. Each one sports a unique Oprah quote, such as Be more splendid. Be more extraordinary. Use every moment to fill yourself up and The only courage you really need is the courage to live the life you want.
After seeing the new Hercules, directed by Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour series, Tower Heist) and starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, I can't believe Oprah didn't get a writing credit. "YOU HAVE IT WITHIN YOURSELF TO WRITE YOUR OWN LEGEND!" screams Hercules to his army before a battle. "You just need to believe you're a hero!" urges Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Hercules' seer pal, a scene or two later as his friend strains his veiny bulges trying to break some chains.
"Don't just stand there, kill someone!" is also a quote in this movie, and it was indeed a temptation after seeing the most lauded exemplar of an ancient civilization reduced to reading his men drafts of self-help books.
See, the conceit of this "truth-behind-the-legend" retelling is that Hercules isn't quite the guy you've heard about. Strong? Yes. Immortal? Ha! All of the crazier stuff is part of a bronze-age social marketing strategy put in place by his bard nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), in order to get their mercenary band to "go viral" and drive revenue. Their promising business model gets interrupted, though, when a routine consulting gig for the King of Thrace (John Hurt) turns into a PR nightmare of epic proportions.
Hercules, as its flame-wreathed poster art suggested, wants to belong to the pulp sword-and-sandal tradition. It emulates Robert E. Howard, not Apollodorus or Bullfinch. Judging it on those standards, then, the movie should surprise a lot of people. It manages to have a dose of nostalgia for the B-movies that have come before it, but still take a stab (HEY THERE!) at providing the sort of digital entertainment its target audience expects.
There are clever moments of self-awareness, like an anachronistic marijuana joke ("If you're gonna use those herbs, at least share") and a young man excited about legends of buxom wenches. For everything it doesn't know (plot, for example), the movie at least knows what it is.
The dialogue is clichéd to the point of hilarity. "A man cannot escape his fate." "Don't cut yourself on that sword." "You've made your choice!" "This is madness!" "We're family. All we have is each other." "I'm just getting started." And that's only what I had time to write. Occasionally, though, it's hilarious in its own right. (It's not every day one gets to see Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson say, "F***ing centaurs.")
The action sequences are the most surprising part of the experience—in that they aren't bad. Much action filmmaking of the past decade has been incredibly lazy, jumping from shot to shot so that fight sequences are almost stop-motion. This saves time, money, and effort. It's justified halfheartedly by an appeal to the aura of "realism" it creates, the shaky-cam sense that you're right there. This may have been true when the technique was still a novelty, but hasn't been a novelty for a while.
It's great, then, to see Hercules let shots go for just a second or two longer than most other modern hack-and-slashers would. It is as simple as an actor swinging a sword, the blow connecting, and another actor reacting to the blow all in the same two seconds of clearly visible footage. Normally you'd have one shot of a man snarling and swinging a sword, immediately followed by a half second of an enemy in mid-fall. Often neither combatant is seen in the same frame at once.
Similar attention is paid to the formation of armies in one of the battle scenes. It is still woefully short of ideal, but one can still appreciate Ratner showing the bird's eye view two times instead of, well, none.
The Rock is just about as craggy as you want him. His strength and propensity for bone-crunching are on display, but tempered by the absurdity of a lion headdress and surf instructor haircut. There are times when the juxtaposition seems to bewilder both Johnson and the audience, though. He is an affable man. His talent could have lifted the whole movie, if it hadn't been ordered to be in several places at once.
With some things going for it, if Hercules had taken the trouble to stand for something, it might be entertainment worth indulging. If it had picked any one of the classical or Christian virtues and presented a hero aspiring to it, or even just a narrator paying lip service to it in one of the film's many expository voiceovers, that would have hit the necessary Howardian beat. But Hercules learning to "believe in himself," to write his own story and dance to the beat of his own drum, to be the change he wished to see in Thrace? How utterly un-thumotic!
Viewer discretion is advised.
This movie is at the bloodier end of what I've seen in PG-13 movies. Intense battle sequences: chariots with scythed wheels mowing down men, spears and arrows puncturing people, and the obligatory men catching fire. A woman disrobes from behind, exposing round buttocks. A bare breast is sort of visible through wispy clothing. The words "f***ing centaurs" are uttered. Perhaps a stretch for most 13 year olds.