Upon leaving Hercules (the, I don't know, fifth or tenth movie of that exact title, but I'm talking about the one made in 2014 in America), the friend with whom I saw it and I got to talking about why in the hell so much of recent pop culture has been obsessed with grounding fantastic characters in real-world scenarios. We came up with no solutions, but oh! so many interesting hypotheses, firmly grounded in our respective backgrounds, and the important takeaway is this: anything at all is more interesting to talk about than Hercules, a film that is most notable for how its incredible competence prevents it even from being ironic, campy fun, the way that The Legend of Hercules was this past winter.

Hercules '14 finds Dwayne Johnson as the latest unfortunate soul to take on the role of the Greek demigod, though in this version he's not: he's just a muscular mercenary with a good head for strategy, a Tragic but Mysterious backstory, and an inner circle of warrior-politician friends who help propagate the most outlandish stories of his proficiency at fighting fantastic monsters. These comrades in arms are a convenient cross-section of easily-memorised character types: the Scoundrel, Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the Stoner Seer, Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the Woman, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the Damaged Man-Child, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and the PR Man, Hercules's nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). That Hercules, in this telling (as in Disney's 1997 animated feature, kind of) has a PR man speaks to its very unexpected, omnipresent tone of jokey modernism. The film winks, constantly: it's almost as much a comedy as it is a sword-and-sandal action movie, which is either its worst feature or its saving grace. I honestly haven't figured it out yet. It's a boon to the film in that the fact of a jokey, insincere, "boy, can you believe all this faux-classical horseshit" Hercules is undoubtedly preferable to whatever grave and sober-minded Hercules director Brett Ratner would have whipped up, especially with this cast - the last time Dwayne Johnson appeared in an ancient world movie and was trying to be absolutely sincere ant straitlaced about it, we got The Scorpion King, and who in all the hells that ever were wants to relive The Scorpion King.

That movie, of course, came out during Johnson's "The Rock wants to act" phase, when he was still primarily a professional wrestler; Hercules is a product of Johnson's "goofy character actor" phase, which has been a great deal more rewarding, both for him and for those of us in the audience watching him. I think it's fair to say that Hercules without Johnson would be a completely insufferable experience of shrill self-congratulation, watchable only for McShane's zoned-out sage spouting weird snark in the tone of voice that he does so singularly well. With Johnson, Hercules is at least passable entertainment: for all his serious grimacing and the ruinous shoulder-length wig meant to make him look more like a classic hero, there's something that comes through in his performance that smacks of a kid who's having the best damn time of his life playing dress-up and acting all super-serious. It's appealingly dimwitted charm in place of all the tonally inconsistent jokiness that plays too often in the rest of the film like self-mockery, and there's almost enough it to make Hercules feel, on balance, like a rewarding experience: stupid fun in place of impressive mythic action, but fun nonetheless.

Almost. Though it clocks in at a blessedly unpretentious 98 minutes, Hercules is by no means a quick-moving film, dragging itself down in a piecemeal story adapted by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spilotopoulos from a comic by the late Steve Moore - adapted very freely, I am given to understand - as a series of disconnected narrative chunks. There's enough of an overall shape to it that I can't quite see fit to call it episodic, and yet episodes are exactly what it feels like - if one didn't know better, it would be possible to see in this a two-part pilot miniseries for a full-length Hercules TV show (though one not remotely as much trashy B-picture fun as the actual Hercules show): By virtue of having a climax that builds off the opening act, it obviously tells one story, but it tells it in parts that seem to each have their own conflict. To say more would be to court spoilers, though I can at least point out that when a film relies on a mid-film twist to suddenly reveal that the established villain isn't what he seems to be, it might be a touch more satisfying, it might then be more satisfying not to completely forget that he ever existed as a character, as Hercules does.

The thing that the movie is, as a storytelling device, is harmlessly trite: Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of a warlord named Cotys (John Hurt), has been sent to hire Hercules and his band of mercs, hoping to subdue the local barbarians who've been given Cotys a headache as he attempts to unite the region of Thrace as a kingdom. And so Hercules and his crew have to train the hapless Thracians in the arts of warfare. Then comes the clumsy act break, with the second half of the film involving the actual evil that has been secretly moving events around, unknown to Hercules, all along. Fair's fair, the whole "oh, but this quest was only the prologue to your actual battle" structure is inherent to ancient myths, but Hercules is too eager to renounce mythology to rely on its narrative structures as a "get out of lousy screenwriting free" card.

Which takes us back to where we started: how Hercules purports to tell the "real story" of Hercules, without all the magic lion and multi-headed snake monster nonsense. I suppose I have no argument against this impulse, other than that it seems totally needless. Presumably it keeps the budget down to have Hercules's legendary tasks reduced to a few cameo shots (which look really shitty, incidentally; the Hydra in particular), but it also makes the film a bit less thrilling. One might hope that the film compensates for the lack of exciting fantasy sequences by doubling-down on action scenes, but these are fairly drab, all things considered, with handful of really impressive aerial shots pepping up battles that are otherwise inscrutable mires of various shades of brown and tan smashing into each other under Ratner's detached eye, and his surprisingly stiff camera movements (the film was shot by Dante Spinotti, who is certainly more talented than the chintzy monochrome on display here). I gather that the tongue-in-cheek tone that covers the whole film was at least partially aimed at drawing our attention from the more serious elements of the film, and saving the filmmakers from sinking a lot energy into impressive fighting choreography and camerawork. In effect, all it does is leave the film with an insubstantial, self-amused tone that never gels into anything consistently enjoyable to watch, and while Johnson keeps things from being a total loss, even he's not enough to push this over as more than a largely inoffensive distraction.

6/10