FRESH POUR: Hercules (2014) / Lucy (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Dir. Brett Ratner
Paramount/MGM Pictures

It’s been long established that it’s hard for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to do wrong – even in the films he can’t really save (GI Joe Retaliation, for instance), he’s at least good and charismatic in them. This film is no exception, to be sure, and The Rock as Hercules is such a no-duh proposition that it’s hard to not recommend Hercules on that alone. There’s a fair amount of fun, interesting stuff here, but ultimately it ends up being pretty standard B-level fare.

Hercules continues the current trend of demythologizing ancient heroes – this time around, Herc is just a really strong, powerful dude who spreads stories about him being a demigod so he can make money slaughtering monsters. You see, the famous creatures he killed (the Hydra, the Nimean Lion) weren’t real mythical creatures, just either big animals or dudes dressed as creatures. Furthermore, he didn’t defeat them alone; this Herc has a crew of 5 other badass warriors (and his hype man, Iolaus) to help him along the way. When Herc and crew are hired by King Cotys (John Hurt, hamming it up for all it’s worth) to defend his city from Rhesus and his centaurs, they find themselves wrapped up in a much more complicated political scenario than they might have thought.

To its credit, Hercules has a tremendously fun sense of humor. It’s cheeky and contemporary in a lot of good ways, to the point where it feels like a tonal remake of the 90s TV show starring Kevin Sorbo. Johnson and crew speak with a slightly elevated modern vernacular that doesn’t keep them from making cheeky jokes every once in awhile. Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane are particularly great as the aloof Autolycus and the fanatical prophet Amphiaraus, respectively; they chew their scenes with gusto and have a lot of fun with their knife-throwing and staff-swinging. McShane himself gets a lot of the film’s biggest laughs, especially given his role as a particularly unreliable prophet (for a film about lies and prophecies, his ultimate answer to these contradictions puts a great cap on the end of the film). The rest of Herc’s crew are serviceable, but not great; Reece Ritchie’s Iolaus is a bit too annoying to really work, the lady-archer Atalanta isn’t given enough to do outside of her fighting, and the mute brute Tydeus is the character least deserving of the moments of drama he is given. Still, as a unit they work quite well, and I’d almost be interested in watching a weekly show about them.

Apart from some wonderfully off-kilter characterizations, and the strong, charismatic presence of Johnson (who, to muddle my mythology, carries the film on his broad, stretch-marked shoulders), the film is still largely wasted. Ratner still shows a very limited sense of visual flair; he tends to poorly ape the style of whatever director he’s homaging at that given moment, from Demme in Red Dragon to even his predecessor Bryan Singer in X-Men: The Last Stand. Here, he’s aping John Milius and Ridley Scott, but the end result is more Marcus Nispel (the director of the Conan remake starring Jason Momoa). Many shots are flat, the action staging is nothing special, and the pacing is a bit too wonky to truly work.

By the time the final act twist comes around (and you just know there is one!), it doesn’t feel appropriately set up; instead, it just feels like Ratner and crew needed to kill about twenty more minutes and bring Herc’s character full circle. Suddenly, Joseph Fiennes’ character (who is only seen in flashbacks) arrives in town just to take his revenge on Hercules, the villain we’ve been chasing this whole time (and who definitely has control of zombie armies) is a good guy whose rescue is an afterthought, and the “I’m not a god, just a really strong dude with badass friends” Hercules can suddenly push buildings over with his bare hands. Luckily, the strength and energy of the zippy, committed performances helps sell the silliness, but it’s still just a bit too cut and dried to really work as a film.

In another director’s hands, I think Hercules could have been even better than it is; as it exists now, it’s an average, serviceable summer flick. Johnson’s always great to watch, as he throws himself into the role of Hercules with that same gentle-giant ferocity we’ve loved for years, and he can swing a big-ass club at a zombie just as well as he can comfort a starry-eyed child. A few more passes to the script, and a bit more effort from a director more willing to run with the camp, and Rockules could live again, and live well.

Clint’s Verdict: Worth a Watch

Hercules Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever someone brings up the Twelve Labors
2) Drink any time Herc (Dwayne The Rock Johnson) offers kind words to someone
3) Drink every time one of Hercules’ crew kills an enemy in a creative manner
Finish Your Drink When:
The Rock shouts, “I AM HERCULEEEES!!!!”

Dir. Luc Besson
Universal Pictures

“The 10% of your brain thing is a myth! It’s not a real thing!” is what everyone has been shouting from the rooftops ever since the first trailer for Lucy came out (including, shamefully, myself). And to be fair, we had a point; it’s not a real thing, and the fact that this latest Luc Besson Euro-thriller-starring-a-skinny-badass has Morgan Freeman trotting out that information in the trailer makes it easy for us to turn our nose up and smugly consider the fact that we know more about the human brain than Luc Besson does. However, after watching Lucy, I’m left with the impression that Besson doesn’t really particularly care, nor should anyone fear that we’re damaging our brains and our kids’ brains for this movie ‘perpetuating the myth.’ Basically, this movie, just like its companion film Hercules, is good dumb fun. However, whereas Rockules is dumb fun by virtue of it being a cheeky 90s throwback, Lucy tries some really creative and ambitious stuff, only some of which works. Despite that, I love seeing big, weird risks being taken in otherwise schlocky fare, and for that I have to give Lucy a fair amount of credit.

In this film, young, dumb Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is lured by her drug-dealing boyfriend to the employ of Chang (Oldboy’s Choi Min-Sik), who knocks her out and implants a bag of experimental sense-enhancing drug called CPH4 into her stomach to make her a mule. However, after a swift kick to the stomach breaks the bag open inside her, Lucy begins to take on weird powers and an incredible sense of perception, slowly ascending her towards effective godhood. After she breaks out and starts being able to “feel [her] brain,” she gradually discovers new powers and abilities, consulting quack brain scientist Morgan Freeman to try to understand what’s happening to her. (This is, of course, at least the second movie this year where Morgan Freeman is a befuddled scientist whose job it is to watch in awe as the main character transcends physical reality and worry about the implications.) Of course, while all this is going on, Min-Sik still wants his drugs back.

Besson’s always been hit or miss; for every awesome flick like Leon  or The Fifth Element, there’s disappointing schlock like The Family or any of the other Euro-trash thrillers that his prolific production arm churns out. Lucy doesn’t do quite enough to elevate itself above its own trappings, but the level of ambition is fascinating to watch. In the early act of the film, Besson employs a great intercutting gimmick that displays the subtext of humanity’s animal nature (which Lucy will soon transcend) through quick cuts of animal behavior matching what the characters are doing. When Lucy’s boyfriend tells her to go meet his contact with a mysterious briefcase, a quick shot shows a mouse wandering toward a mousetrap. In the moments leading up to her eventual capture, Besson splices in a tiger hunting a gazelle. These and other moments like it lend a wonderfully wry sense of humor to the proceedings, which has always been present in Besson’s works, but it functions here better than in other places.

There’s a surprising amount of intertextuality between this and many of Johansson’s latest major roles of recent years; post-drug Lucy is basically a mix of her alien cipher from Under the Skin, her omniscient AI love interest from Her, and the confident, kick-ass Black Widow from The Winter Soldier. Lucy’s journey is effectively the reverse of Under the Skin; whereas that character starts as a curious and predatory alien who starts to form connections with humanity because of her increased proximity to them, Lucy grows increasingly distanced from her human counterparts as she starts to enter her journey into godhood. Johansson acquits herself well here, showing a surprisingly coherent shift from the spooked, slightly tart-y Lucy who is too trusting of a sleazebag who dresses like Kid Rock (and whom she’s only known/been sleeping with for a week), to a steely-faced  Starchild who is increasingly losing her connection to humanity. (In one interesting moment, she tells her erstwhile protector/partner, Capt. Del Rio, that she keeps him around as “a reminder” of what it is to be human.) Still, I will say that the sudden gear shift from scared little girl to Buffy-on-X is a bit too abrupt to really mine much drama from it.

The film’s final 15 minutes are the real barometer for whether you’ll like the film or not. Leading up to that point, we’re treated to a showcase of Lucy’s tremendous talents, to the point where she quickly abandons the need even to fight her opponents – she can basically hack minds about a half hour in. However, it is in the film’s climax where Besson treats us to a fascinatingly weird and crazy fun series of sequences, where Lucy starts transcending time and space. A combination of the tentacle-crazy body transformations in Akira and the God’s-eye view of the universe from 2001, Lucy stats to become one with the cosmos, all while Del Rio and friends have a balls-to-the-wall shootout with Min-Sik’s crew in a hallway. It’s a kooky scenario that I can’t help but enjoy for the sheer oddball nature of it; bazookas blow open doors, statues of old Catholic cardinals get shot up, all while Morgan Freeman and friends stare in lab coats as Johansson’s skin starts turning black and tentacles form from her body to build a Lovecraftian supercomputer.

All of these crazy and disparate elements combine to make Lucy a film that is certainly worth a watch, and is just ambitious enough to make up for the elements not cohering as well as they want to. It’s Transcendence without the ponderousness, and with a strange European sense of humor. It certainly takes itself less seriously than that film, and is all the better for it. It’s a dumb, dumb movie, but it’s dumb in the right way.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Lucy Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever an intertitle pops up letting you know what “percentage” of the brain Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) has unlocked
2) Drink any time Lucy makes use of her powers
3) Drink every time stock footage is ironically intercut with the events of the film
Finish Your Drink When:
Lucy says, “I can feel my brain.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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