Movie Review: “Hercules”

It is beyond question that if any man was ever born to play the role of Hercules, it would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose very presence in a movie is an inspiration to do more bench-presses. And accordingly, Brett Ratner’s big-budget epic doesn’t disappoint: the succinctly titled “Hercules” is a bang-up summer action pic with no pretensions of grandeur. (And, after all, there’s no better flick to watch at a bachelor party)

The film, set in the war-ravaged region of Thrace, picks up shortly after the completion of Hercules’ labors for King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes). While traveling with his ragtag band of mercenaries (a largely forgettable lot), Hercules is recruited by King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) to put down a violent insurgency. It soon becomes clear, however, that all is not as it appears.

Is the plot cliché-ridden and formulaic? Sure. That being said, “Hercules” has a few tricks up its sleeve that lift it well above “Clash of the Titans”-level.

For starters, the battles are great – really great. If you’re tired of the “shaky-cam” style that has plagued action cinema for the last several years, look no further than “Hercules”: here, in classical fashion, it’s actually possible to discern what is going on in the midst of combat.

Johnson is a surprisingly charismatic lead, and one who’s clearly enjoying himself immensely. While most of the other actors are forgettable, it’s worth pointing out that this is no joyless “300”-style affair: there’s enough humor and momentum to keep things lively even in the midst of crisis.

What’s more, there’s even some interesting philosophical material just beneath the surface.

In this reimagining of the legendary hero, Hercules’ famed labors have been shellacked with the stuff of legend. (The slaying of the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna, depicted early on in CGI-infused majesty, actually involved defeating a band of men in snake-inspired helmets). Given this, it may be easy to cast “Hercules” as a naturalistic subversion of the traditional mythology – a celebration of the human spirit rather than the divine.

This characterization, however, is not entirely accurate.

For starters, here there is a factual substrate underlying the legends that have arisen around Hercules: his labors clearly are more than folk accounts, even if some understand them with varying degrees of literalism. Moreover, the central contention of the Hercules legend – that he is the son of Zeus, and is a man in whom the blood of the gods flows – is not itself called into question: indeed, events near the end of the film drive this home with a vengeance. Who is to say, then, that the labors of Hercules are not still ways in which evil is defeated by the manifest power of divinity?

This theme – the participation of the spiritual in the material – is explored in a myriad of theological traditions. Sacramental theologies (Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) affirm the interaction between natural and supernatural elements of life: to use the Lutheran formulation, in Holy Communion the Body and Blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. Conversely, newer strands of Protestantism are inclined to posit a neo-Gnostic disjunct between spirituality and materiality: hence the understanding of the Eucharist as solely a “symbolic memorial.” Such a rigidly dualistic sacramental framework is oftentimes coupled with a strictly literalistic biblical interpretation, in which miracles must be understood as dramatic violations of natural order.

An example serves to highlight this divergence in perspective: if it were conclusively shown that the first plague of Moses involved a dinoflagellate bloom (a toxic “red tide” that would have caused widespread destruction), rather than a literal “turning of the Nile to blood,” would it call into question the providence of God to the Israelites? Older Christian traditions would say assuredly not, since Divine power can and does work through the ordinary stuff of life – bread and wine, water and language.

And interestingly, this is the understanding suggested by “Hercules,” whether the film’s writers are cognizant of it or not. Hercules’ heroic acts are ways in which the supernatural is made manifest within the context of empirical reality – yet the empirical is not itself exclusive of the transcendent.

All that being said, most viewers won’t appreciate this dimension – and “Hercules” remains perfectly enjoyable regardless. (It’s probably worth noting, though, that this is a violent, frequently bloody movie that pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating). Fans of old-school war movies will find a great deal to enjoy here, as will those looking for undemanding late-summer entertainment.

Well worth seeing.

An energetic, entertaining reimagining of the Hercules tale. Recommended.

Movie Review: “Transformers – Age of Extinction”

In my more lucid moments, I hate that I saw this movie. The entire bloated “Transformers” franchise ranks with Diet Mountain Dew, “Supernatural,” Britney Spears, etc. in the “things that I rather enjoy but simultaneously am appalled by” category. And yes, it is beyond question that director Michael Bay is the Monsanto of Hollywood, and that this movie series is symptomatic of everything wrong with contemporary entertainment and global society.

But man, say what you will, I like to watch giant robots beat up on each other. And there is something to be said for the delirious, epileptic grandiosity of watching an alien robot warrior ride a gigantic fire-breathing mechanical tyrannosaurus into the midst of a city-destroying battle.

This time around, the human cast is substantially different. Shia LaBoeuf (who will not be missed) has been replaced by Mark Wahlberg in the role of a down-on-his-luck inventor. (Remember when “The World Is Not Enough” cast Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist? Wahlberg is about as believable as a “quirky science type”). After the Chicago-clobbering events of film #3, public opinion transformed against all aliens and the Transformers have faced systemic genocide. Wahlberg, however, manages to find the heroic Optimus Prime disguised as a run-down semi. Cue lots of explosions and showdowns with angry government officials, who (by virtue of the ubiquitously sinister military-industrial complex) have been working to assemble their own synthetic Transformers. Oh yeah, and there’s also a bounty hunter Transformer prowling around with motives of his own.

No one short of an outright masochist watches this series for plot coherence, so the less said the better.

But what matters, naturally, is not this film’s story, but rather its pyrotechnic special effects and massive levels of destruction. And this series does its action very, very well.

Last summer’s “Man of Steel” was intolerably destructive, vaguely nihilistic, and ponderous. The same cannot be said for this series: the last couple of “Transformers” movies have served up plenty of mesmerizing slo-mo images and gleefully kinetic action scenes, all designed specifically to appeal to one’s repressed inner child. It’s cheesy but also kind of great, like the Roger Moore era of Bond films. Very few other film franchises are willing (or have the budgets) to serve up this level of visual delirium, and things just keep getting more spectacular.

Most of this franchise’s egregious vices remain present. For instance, the product placement is so extreme as to be laughable. A full minute is devoted to watching robots blow up a Bud Light truck, after which Wahlberg pops open a bottle and takes a long drink. Moreover, it’s abundantly clear that Bay is pandering to the lucrative Chinese market – instead of relying on the patriotic tropes of its predecessors, “Age of Extinction” sets its final conflict in Hong Kong and pulls in a host of local film stars for cameos.

Yet oddly, “Age of Extinction” becomes watchable through its over-the-top commitment to the ludicrousness of its own central conceit. At this point, four movies in, it really wouldn’t be a “Transformers” film without relying on gratuitous absurdity and shameless cash-grabbing. It’s the Krispy Kreme Donuts of cinema – yes, you might have a stomachache afterwards, but it’s weirdly comforting in the moment. (As a plus, there’s far less crass humor and quasi-racism than in previous “Transformers” installments. It’s indulgent and bludgeoning, but not particularly offensive.)

If you saw the other movies, you’ll probably see this one. If your tastes are exclusively of the highbrow variety, you’ll stay far away. Maybe, just maybe, I still can’t believe I went to see this movie and am now writing this as a sort of cathartic absolution.

But still, robot dinosaurs. Enough said:

By this point, you probably know what you’re in for. It’s pretty satisfying, so long as one’s expectations are set at the proper level.