There’s no way for me to explain why director Brett Ratner’s “Hercules” completely won me over without what revealing what might be a fairly big spoiler. Those familiar with Steve Moore’s source material, “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” won’t be surprised. Those, like me, only familiar with the film’s trailer might be. So here goes…
Despite a misleading trailer, star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Hercules is not the mythological demigod born of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. Like the trailer, the first few minutes of the story attempt to scare you into believing you’re in for 98 punishing minutes of stiff, stilted (“and it was told by the legend of Mt. Mobilusephys that Hercules would find his fate awaiting in the eyes of Gentrocopolopispis the beast of his father’s father’s father’s father’s sword made from steel found only in the Gestipulvianianianiann mines of PleaseKillMeNow.”) mumbo jumbo.
Suddenly the clouds part, the sun shines, and you learn it’s all a big put on.
Hercules is plenty big and strong but he’s as mortal as you and I. His day job is that of a mercenary-for-hire and the mumbo jumbo is pure public relations meant to up the price of his services and terrify whoever he’s hired to defeat.
Hercules is not only mortal, he’s a bit of a cliché; one of those screen heroes that needs just one more payday in order to retire and pass the time of life on a beach somewhere. That payday arrives in the form of Cotys, King of Thrace (a very, very welcome John Hurt). Barbarians threaten his kingdom and outlying villages. He needs Hercules and his band of mercenaries to put together, train and lead an amateur army.
The movie just works. It knows what it is, embraces that fact, and asks nothing more of itself or the audience. The story is a little more predictable than I would have liked, but that will do nothing to diminish how much fun you’re having.
One unexpected and welcome twist is that Hercules is a bona fide hero, not an anti-hero (in the source material Hercules is a mean-tempered bisexual. Thankfully, there’s not even a hint of that.). When you consider that Hercules is a roving mercenary and the state of movies today, I was legitimately surprised that when we first meet him, Hercules is already a righteous man only willing to fight for a just cause.
Though good-hearted and loyal, that can’t be said as confidently for Hercules’ merry band of fellow mercenaries.
Adding all kinds of character, humor, warmth, action, masculinity and badassery are Amphiaraus (Ian McShane having a blast). a mystical seer who loves nothing more than to slice through hordes of barbarians; Autolycus (the under-appreciated Rufus Sewell) as Hercules’ childhood, gold-hungry friend; and Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a mute with a raging case of bloodlust. Rounding out the gang is Amazon warrior Atalanta (Nicole Kidman lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal).
The group has a real chemistry that makes the quiet moments between them every bit as entertaining as the battles, which are in and of themselves worth the price of admission. The staging, choreography, geography, and execution of the action is top-shelf.
Ratner not only echoes Howard Hawks in the easygoing familiarity and humor of his character relationships, his action scenes — especially a knockout sequence in the second act — are reminiscent of the original “300.”
At the center of it all is Johnson, whose improvement as an actor over the past ten years has been remarkable. Even with a gang of terrific character actors surrounding him, Johnson holds his own, and not just through his bulk. With his improved acting has come a confidence that gives The Rock a real screen presence and starpower that’s lacking in his many beefy counterparts (Channing Tatum comes to mind).
Part “300” with a touch of “Magnificent Seven” mixed with Errol Flynn’s “Robin Hood,” Bret Ratner’s “Hercules” delivers good old-fashioned heroism and a great time at the movies. Bring the family. There’s almost no sexuality and the violence won’t make you question the PG-13 rating.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC