Film Review: Hercules

Legendary strongman is caught in the middle of a brutal civil war in a fast-paced vehicle for Dwayne Johnson.

Forget the gods and monsters. For that matter, forget all those old Italian sword-and-sandal B-movies with their bad dubbing and worse acting. And especially put aside The Legend of Hercules, Renny Harlin's slipshod adventure released earlier this year. This Hercules is a swift, meaty adventure filled with action and betrayals. While it won't win over The Rock's naysayers, Hercules is a smart career move for the movies' reigning action figure.

Based on comic books by Steve Moore, this Hercules recasts the hero of Greek mythology as a mercenary and con artist haunted by his past. Exiled from Athens, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) has formed a team of similarly disreputable, cynical fighters: soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), knife thrower Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), bow expert Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the mute orphan Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and Hercules' young cousin Iolaus (Reece Ritchie).

They roam the Greek countryside like gunslingers, hiring themselves out to anyone with money. Celebrating after a fight with pirates, Hercules and his friends are approached by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Cotys (John Hurt), the King of Thrace.

Thrace has been set upon by Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) and his rebel army. After meeting Cotys, Hercules agrees to a fee of twice his weight in gold to train the Thracian King's army against Rhesus and his men.

That may seem like a lot of plot, but screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos put it across quickly and cleanly, setting scenes and etching in characters with vivid details. Stripping away the story's mythological aspects, they offer instead an ancient Greek take on The Seven Samurai. Once the pieces are in place, Hercules becomes an increasingly bloody game of strategy that plays out in three extended battles and a few surprisingly effective dramatic moments.

Director Brett Ratner (Tower Heist, the Rush Hour series) seems more energized than in his recent outings, framing and editing the fights so that they have real impact. The CGI is most apparent in the wide landscape shots; otherwise, much of Hercules seems close up and intimidatingly physical.

Also silly enough to evoke Saturday afternoons with Steve Reeves and other bodybuilders from 50 years ago. Although Ratner refers to epics like Gladiator, Hercules is a much more modest outing aimed at younger viewers. And while the script raises political points, the movie's really about bashing in the heads of bad guys.

Fortunately, Johnson is dignified and entirely credible as Hercules. Although his line readings occasionally falter, he never loses command of the screen. The movie surrounds him with canny performers like McShane and Hurt who add dramatic heft and a bit of sarcasm to the story.

The best thing about Hercules may be how well it meets its goals. It's not the definitive look at ancient Greek demigods, but it is smart, exciting escapist fare that won't disappoint Johnson's fans.

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