There are cheap costumes, cartoonish special effects and endless nonsense monologues in Brett Ratner's “Hercules." Ergo, there's also Ian McShane. HBO's "Deadwood" blew up the journeyman actor's career, making him a must-have accessory in the eyes of all casting agents. But since the end of that show, where he essayed the role of the iconic Al Swearengen, he's been lost in an increasingly inessential sea of special effects-heavy blockbusters, from “Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” to “Jack The Giant Slayer," from “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” to “Snow White And The Huntsman." You figure the qualifications for McShane appearing in your movie involve the least amount of acting possible. “Hercules” may be the first film where, finally, everyone is on the exact same page as McShane.
Of course, if you don't know McShane, don't worry: he's in the bulk of scenes in “Hercules," and yet you won't even remember he was there by the film's close. Like the costumes, like the effects, his presence is perfunctory. This is a vehicle for Dwayne Johnson, the charismatic wrestler-turned-actor who hasn't yet lucked into the type of role that suits his specific skills. But like the previous efforts to turn him into a star, "Hercules" can't seem to find a way to synthesize his charm and considerable physical presence to produce the next Schwarzenegger. Like Arnold, he's massive, his bulk rippling in an awe-inspiring way: the way Dante Spinotti captures the sun playing over Johnson's rippling biceps is nearly worth the price of admission. And like Arnold, you immediately like Johnson. He smiles, it's instantly contagious, and you feel safe around this gentle giant. Problem is, Arnold had both these attributes at the same time. “Hercules," more than any other Johnson film, feels the need to alternate between them.
This is a byproduct of the film's story, or at least its bare outline. The legend of Hercules echoes through the villages, but when we meet Johnson and his colorful gang of warriors, they're strictly soldiers for hire. What's more, Hercules is but a man, not a god, much to the disappointment of all who meet him. This feels like a foolish distinction when you have Johnson literally throwing horses onscreen. A more classical “Hercules” movie, where Johnson does not hide his supernatural brute strength behind modesty, is the one you want to see. This film troubles itself instead with “the truth behind the legend,” which, as it turns out, is just more legends, albeit more believable ones. It feels like a stab at a more contemporary, Earth-bound view of folklore. It also feels like a complete lack of imagination masquerading as invention: let's make a “Hercules” that's less like the legends of Hercules, and more like literally any other ancient-history scrum.
Poor Johnson is a physical marvel, but has absolutely nothing to play. He glowers, drops anachronistically sarcastic one-liners, and rubs the heads of well-behaved moppet children. He also seems to alternate between accents, often settling for vaguely-historical British, while also suggesting this Hercules is mildly mentally disturbed. Of course, the first half hour of the movie is spent with every character talking about how strong, proud and wonderful a guy Hercules is, to the point where a subplot about possibly having murdered his family is the dumbest possible red herring. Tragedy instead of characterization.
There's a plot (a war, an army, a double cross, etc.), but the script is almost all expository dialogue, and each dialogue scene is about two minutes or less in a race to the end. “Hercules” feels like a problem picture, a film that just doesn't work, requiring extra last-minute time in the edit bay. Irrelevant plot points whiz by whether you comprehend them or not, while statements like, “I have a plan” just hang there, unanswered. The movie is packed with dubious ADR, and concludes with a hysterically out-of-place voiceover, one of many voices providing the film's narration. There are post-production fingerprints everywhere, and given the mercifully short runtime (98 minutes), there's the sense that the studio salvaged Ratner's footage with the intention of just making it comprehensible.
Not to say the film is absent of pleasures. Johnson's presence remains a marquee attraction, and he's probably the only actor alive who could convincingly portray some of the more outlandish action sequences in the film. He's surrounded by a posse that includes the gorgeous bow-wielding Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and the mad-eyed Aksel Hennie of “Headhunters," who both get moments of acrobatic glee amidst all the nonsense. In 3D, a couple of the brawls have moments that pop, though they pale in comparison to this year's similar “300: Rise Of An Empire," with a couple of sequences relying on the sort of dopey gizmos you'd see on a Saturday morning “Hercules” cartoon. Which would probably be a more appropriate venue for “Hercules," a programmer that proudly lets the audience move five steps ahead of its nonsense plot. It's mythmaking for dummies, a “Hercules” with no poetry, only incompetent brute strength. But Ian McShane had a good time. [D+]