(On Cable TV, May 2015) I don’t quite understand this trend of demystifying legends, offering “the real story” behind fantastical tales or sucking all the fun and excitement out of time-proven tales. Hercules hops on this bandwagon (see Robin Hood, Exodus, etc.) by telling audiences about the Hercules behind the legend, presenting a mercenary who’s only too happy to let the legend of his twelve labours get him hired by rich clients. What follows is a historical epic absent of magic, almost bending itself out of shape to deliver epic battles without tipping into the supernatural. It doesn’t always work, as a not-really-zombies sequence shows. Still, the film coasts a long time on Brett Ratner’s unobtrusive direction and Dwayne Johnson’s pure charisma. As often happens, Johnson is fantastic even if the film around him isn’t: playing a mortal-but-extraordinary Hercules is the kind of thing that only Johnson can do in today’s action star pantheon. Otherwise, Hercules seems almost happy to undercut even its own claims to spectacle, and its bare-bones structure is so predictable that it leaves almost nothing to gnaw upon. So it ends up as a serviceable, but hardly memorable historical action film.
(In theaters, November 2011) Brett Ratner has never been accused of being an elitist director, and his latest Tower Heist is populist in more ways than one. A rob-the-rich comic thriller with the luck of being released just as the United States are developing their first wealth-equality protest movement in a long time, Tower Heist is just as mainstream-minded in the way it unfolds. The happy coincidence of showing up alongside various “Occupy” movements may not be an unqualified plus: The antagonist of the piece is sufficiently arrogant, cruel and unrepentant to qualify as a terrible human being without even invoking the populist rhetoric. Nonetheless, this is still a story about working-class ordinary people taking justice against rich people who stole from them –no matter how we may try to treat this as a standalone story, it does find a special resonance in a post-Madoff, post-financial crisis, post-recession American society. Fortunately, the film is entertaining enough on its own merits to avoid depending solely on current events: Ben Stiller is just fine as the savvy leader of the bunch trying to take away millions of dollars that Alan Alda’s super-rich character has stolen from their pension funds. Eddie Murphy is in rare form as an unrepentant criminal asked to use his skills for a slightly-greater goal. Supporting players such as Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe and Téa Leoni all get a few moments to shine. As for the rest of Tower Heist, it’s a slick big-budget heist film: clean cinematography, steady forward rhythm and a suitably hair-raising action climax set against a festive backdrop. Only the coda has the power to annoy in its insistence that the poor stealing from the rich must face the consequences of bucking the system. Still, the movie itself is entertaining enough, and the populist message is matched by its tone. Don’t expect anything out of the ordinary and you should like it.