Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the great WWE success story. When the juggernaut wrestling promotion tried its best to launch Hulk Hogan’s movie career with its first foray into film production, 1989’s No Holds Barred, the results were mixed. Hogan remains the most widely known household name in wrestling, but his movie career, which featured long-forgotten titles like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, didn’t exactly pan out as planned. The Rock, on the other hand, basically launched WWE’s movie-making division all by his lonesome. His first three starring roles in The Scorpion King, The Rundown, and Walking Tall basically built WWE Studios from the ground up. The Rock’s world-class shit-talking skills & excessive mugging in his wrestling promos translated well to action stardom & he’s been the sole wrestler who’s been able to make a long-term career for himself on the big screen (though Bautista may be next in line).
The secret to Johnson’s success? He’s actually a damn good actor. He has a lot of weird, mostly untapped energy that can reach far beyond the limited roles he’s been landing. With early parts in action shlock like Doom & The Scorpion King, he’s proven himself to be one of the last Schwarzenegger-type muscle gods who manage to look convincing while kicking ass & dispensing pun-heavy quips indiscriminately. He’s perfectly suited for action movie roles, but he’s also being underserved in them. Riskier projects, like the more unhinged Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, have unleashed a different Dwayne Johnson altogether, one completely independent of the Schwarzeneggers & Van Dammes before him. He has a manic beast lurking under that confident exterior, just waiting to out-weird any other action star in the world, Stallone & Cage included.
Unfortunately, Hercules does not employ the offbeat wild-man Dwayne Johnson, but instead opts for the cookie-cutter action star The Rock. He’s in full Scorpion King mode here, hitting so many familiar Schwarzenegger beats that I assumed it was secretly a Conan the Barbarian remake that couldn’t secure the rights. Hercules’ opening narration plays like a trailer to a much better film, The Rock slaying a succession of giant, mystical beasts with ease. It slows down from there, limiting the action to a single episode of Hercules and his rag-tag crew of super-warriors leading an army into an epic battle, the exact kind of narrative you’d expect from vintage Conan the Barbarian story record. The movie has a sort of charm in its limited scope, especially in its lighthearted approach to mass violence and in The Rock’s natural magnetism. Most of Hercules’ best moments arise from The Rock’s inherent coolness. He just looks like a total badass as he wears a lion’s head as a crown, defeats wolves & charging horses with just his bare hands, and smashes a hooded executioner to pulp with a smaller, less talkative rock. Hercules makes for a much more convincing, enjoyable superhero adaptation/reboot than the similarly reductionist films I, Frankenstein & Dracula Untold, but in the end a lot of your enjoyment will hinge on how much you enjoy spending time with The Rock, as opposed to how much room Dwayne Johnson is given to be his enchanting self.
The transition from babyface wrestler to action hero makes total sense. Both roles require a convincing “good guy” to put the world’s depthless “bad guys” in their place. The Rock has had a few great action roles over the past decade or so, and with the exception of a couple missteps like The Tooth Fairy, he’s managed to avoid the pitfalls of Hulk Hogan’s career path. It’s just that after watching what a stranger, more nuanced Dwayne Johnson can do, it’s worrisome that he’s still making something this close to The Scorpion King at this point in time. Hercules can be a fun, one-time viewing for the audience, but let’s hope it’s not a damning career-trajectory indicator for Johnson. He can do so much more when given the chance.