HERCULES – Blu-ray review

This is Dwayne Johnson’s movie. Pure and simple. All other characters, plot lines, special effects and miscellaneous film elements are basically irrelevant. “Hercules” represents Johnson’s coming of age as an action star, and while the film that surrounds his character isn’t exactly polished, he sure as heck is.

Like most good stories now-a-days, “Hercules” on screen was yanked directly from “Hercules” on paper. But not that paper you might be thinking of, mind you. It was taken from the graphic novel “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” and jointly distributed by Paramount and MGM. With a mere $100 million budget and plenty of recognizable names gracing the brief 98 minute run time with their presence, “Hercules” the film stepped forward like Hercules the character: armed and dangerous.

I got the vibe as my wife and I watched “Hercules” that director and producer Brett Ratner was working hard to generate something that met the modern audience’s typically high expectations, but simultaneously retained some of the classic things you might find in older, epic, ancient history battle sagas. We get a little more character development in “Hercules” than in other similar titles released in recent memory, and the script is surprisingly well-articulated with humor and drama, among other things. But because so much emphasis goes into Johnson’s lead role, the supporting performance wind up feeling scattered and pieced together with cheap packing tape rather than welded firmly into place.

Things begin with Hercules (Johnson) and his trusty mercenaries being approached by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) to train her father Lord Cotys’s (John Hurt) armies of Thrace. They’re freaked out that super nasty warlord named Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann) is going to track them down and take them out. Hercules accepts, and with his team members, including Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Atalanta (Ingrid Berdal) and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), they begin their work.

After a battle designed to test the army’s strength, Hercules and General Sitacles (Peter Mullan) confront Rhesus and his soldiers. He is captured, but Hercules learns that Rhesus was only reacting against Cotys and his aggressive efforts to expand his own kingdom. Pissed off beyond belief, Hercules and his team decide to stop Cotys, but are met with resistance by the same army they trained just a short time ago. We ultimately experience Hercules confront King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes) for actions taken against him and his family years ago, and an epic battle ensues. It’s completely entertaining stuff, I promise.

The depth to Johnson’s character is quite impressive. Physically, he’s a beast in “Hercules.” I have an image of him locked away in the Russian mountains just like Sylvester Stallone was during “Rocky 4” getting into the right condition for this role. There is no way Johnson fabricated his muscular build and physical attributes with CGI. This dude is the real deal, and he embodies his role in every single positive way possible. His commitment to ownership is abundantly clear all the way through, and there is little doubt he took this on in the most personal way a performer can. At day’s end, Johnson is the rock that anchors “Hercules” to the audience.

We see some fantastic, detailed battle sequences that are disorienting and loud, but they’re balanced with some rather solid character interactions. What links the action and plot together is a good script, and I appreciated the efforts made by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos to help diversify the characters in a way that humanized them simultaneously. Johnson delivers a solid one-liner or two, and his fellow mercenaries are fairly sharp. The film’s best line probably belongs to Autolycus: “Well, don’t just stand there! Kill someone!”

Because so much moxie goes toward Johnson and his lead role, everyone else sort of lags. I’m not saying they’re bad performances, miscast actors or anything along those lines. But they pale ever so much if compared with Johnson and all he brings to the table. His shadow is so large that everyone else is forced to live within it, both strong and below par supporting cast members alike. Save for Iolaus, everyone who teams up with Hercules is solid, and the film’s villains are pretty good an exhibiting an annoying evil presence that you love to hate. This is a hard one to think out, though, because having Johnson take the lead is so critical to “Hercules” all the way through, but pulling him back from that ledge to allow others to rise would probably lessen his importance. As a result, we have a solid film that could have been even better.

All this said, “Hercules” is quite entertaining because it provides a modern update to a fairly established story from mythological times prior. It isn’t perfect, but heck, with something this dynamic, that shouldn’t be the standard. A strong, powerful lead performance, however? It’s got that, and then some.

Video:
“Hercules” looks awfully sharp in this 1080p High Definition 1.85:1 video transfer. I appreciated the vivid detail in wide, dramatic cut shots as well as the specific carvings in facial expressions during each battle sequence. We are able to see Johnson’s chiseled biceps and exhausting emotional reactions to the film’s good and bad moments. The coloration here is sharp and the clarity is superb, generating layers of depth and breadth I didn’t anticipate when the film began. Visually, this is a top tier transfer from Paramount.

Audio:
The extra detailed English 7.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is critical to helping “Hercules” have the over-the-top combat sequences it uses to shape its relentless pace. There are so many different audio components all coming together at the same time to work in harmony, but it’s a subtle surround sound approach to a big time action flick. The film’s animals, while essentially digital in form, sound as close to the real thing as any in a film ever have before. We’re able to take in all spoken words, be they uttered against a battle or during a meal. Overall, it’s an audio approach that is as strong, if not stronger, than the visuals. Other audio selections include French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1s, while subtitle choices are English, French and Spanish.

Extras:
The set comes with a standard definition DVD and also a digital copy. The Blu-ray disc offers both the extended cut and theatrical versions, fifteen deleted/extended scenes, plus several featurettes and an audio commentary.

A Final Word:
This film’s strongest element is its lead performer, followed by a decently written script and some pretty impressive battle sequences. If only it all tied together just a little more firmly, you’d have something special and worthy of substantial replay value. “Hercules” is not a bad film, but it just doesn’t have enough all culminating at the same time to really elevate itself. Still, it’s more fun than not.

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