Dwayne Johnson joins the likes of such muscle-bound actors as Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno in playing the Greek-hero Hercules. This new “Hercules,” based on a graphic novel by Steve Moore, takes a revisionist approach to the legend with reasonably entertaining results.
The film opens with a narrator recounting Hercules’ 12 labors, the fantastic missions he had to complete in order to appease the goddess, Hera. But this Hercules may or may not be the half god/half human offspring of Zeus.
It turns out the truth behind the labors is embellished and Hercules was aided by a band of loyal comrades in defeating these trials. Hercules and his compatriots are mercenaries who use their manufactured legends to drum up business.
This leads to being hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to train and lead an army of farmers against the cruel Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), who seeks to conquer the land. Naturally, things are more complicated than what they first appear.
For the most part, this is un-challenging escapist fare riddled with cliches and familiar scenes, but the screenplay by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Ryan Condal explores the idea of how a myth is shaped and crafted in way that is surprisingly clever. Mythology is used to inspire fear in enemies and inspire heroism in allies. This unexpected insight helps to elevate an otherwise standard adventure movie.
It also helps that the script has solid doses of humor, mostly provided by Hercules’ band of merry men (and one woman) which includes Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane. Sewell gets such lines as “Today’s lesson: How not to stab yourself.”
The invaluable McShane plays Amphiaraus, who can see the future, and believes he knows when he will die. McShane adds acting gravitas as well as easily stealing scenes with his dry-line delivery.
Johnson looks the part of Hercules, but is more than just muscle. He is an effortlessly charming and appealing performer and can be very funny, but, his performance here downplays his comedic abilities. When Johnson is required to deal with demons from his past he struggles dramatically. Still, he carries the film nicely, and, in scenes with one of Hercules’ young fans (Isaac Andrews) he is low-key, sincere and even gentle.
In terms of the action scenes, while they don’t offer anything new, they are not a chaotic mess of quick edits and everything is easy to follow and understand. Unfortunately, so many modern action films have become visually incomprehensible that the mere presence of coherence has become praise worthy.
Director Brett Ratner has developed a bad reputation among a lot of moviegoers, largely for directing the much-maligned “X-Men: Last Stand,” but he is a competent-enough director who doesn’t deserve the hatred he receives. Unlike Michael Bay, and directors that ape his hyperactive visual-style, Ratner knows how to frame a shot, pace a film and allow for characters to interact.
If you contrast the action in “Hercules” to the similarly-themed “Wrath of the Titans,” Ratner’s direction is miles above “Titans” director Jonathan Liebesman. “Titans” was so over-edited it was frustrating difficult to discern what was happening.
Ratner, at least, can craft a visual punchline. In one of the film’s better moments, Hercules faces off against an adversary on horseback with unexpected results. The visual is followed by a quip from Hercules that gets a huge laugh, but the slow build up makes the line payoff even better. It is only a 30-second bit, but there are several like it sprinkled throughout the film. It is to Ratner’s credit that these scene actual work as well as they do.