Hercules has no right to be as entertaining as it is. It’s dumb, choppy, cheap-looking, and it even somehow manages to waste the Rock … but this big-budget jettisoning of the Greek myth, based on Steve Moore’s Radical comic, is also a million miles from the self-important grandiosity of the 300 films, or the over-CGI'd garishness of Clash of the Titans. It has a playful heart and spirited cast, and little else. But — and maybe this is just what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” speaking — that turns out to be (mostly) enough.
Instead of being another extremely loose retelling of the traditional tale of the demigod (the putative child of Zeus and a mere mortal queen) forced to complete 12 superhuman labors, Brett Ratner's film dispenses with the mythology in its opening scenes. It begins with highly stylized, storybooklike images of Hercules (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) accomplishing some of his infamous feats, and then reveals them to be a fanciful tale spun by Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Hercules's nephew, who has assumed the role of myth-maker and hype-man for his uncle. The real Hercules, you see, is merely the brave, musclebound leader of a ragtag group of mercenaries with diverse backgrounds and skills — among them a business-minded flying-dagger expert (Rufus Sewell), a statuesque Amazon with sick archery skills (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a mute, berserker-style lunatic (Aksel Hennie), and a spear-wielding soothsayer (Ian McShane).
Together, this wisecracking group of crazy-brave fighters goes around taking jobs for gold and using made-up tales of superhuman powers and supernatural beasts to strike fear into their enemies' hearts. (“The more they believe Hercules is the son of god, the less they’re likely to fight.”) It’s a savvy little setup: Those opening images of Hercules fighting the Nemean lion and slaying the Lernaean hydra have the obligatory slo-mo sturm und drang we’ve come to expect from these pimped-out movie variations on mythology. But once it’s undercut — once we’re introduced to the real Hercules and his merry band of warriors — it’s as if a great weight has been lifted. The movie starts to have fun.
As you might expect, our heroes soon take on a job that turns out to be more than they bargained for, when Thracian Lord Cotys (John Hurt) hires them to help him rid his kingdom of an army of deadly centaurs. Though skeptical of this whole centaur thing (they know that most tales of mythical creatures are a sham), Hercules and his fellows nevertheless start to train Cotys’s army of farmers to become real fighting men — teaching them archery and versing them in the importance of a properly formed shield wall. (In fact, the film spends so much time on shield walls that I half expected to see the Shield Wall Association of North America listed as a co-producer.)
Here’s the most surprising thing about Hercules: The Rock isn’t particularly notable in it. I’m a fan of the guy, and he’s likable here, but at times he seems buried behind that beard and that ill-advised mane of hair. But the supporting cast takes up a lot of slack, and much of the film’s pleasure comes from watching Hercules’s team get their individual moments of lighthearted, cavalier bravery. They certainly enliven the film’s battle scenes, which are otherwise something of a mess. Ratner’s never been particularly good at staging action, but he has a flair for comic timing and a fondness for dumb sight gags. Thus, the action scenes in Hercules work best when they're fragmented into little moments, taking our secondary heroes’ absurd ease with bloodshed to comical heights. Put another way: It’s really hard to hate a movie in which Ian McShane leisurely mows down enemy soldiers like grass with a chariot decked out in massive blades.
Earlier this year, Renny Harlin released his take on the Hercules myth — an overstylized, shouty, humorless piece of piffle starring an inert Kellan Lutz. It felt like a waste: a talented director ignoring his strengths in an attempt to recapture some lost cache. Ratner, who is nowhere near the director Harlin was in his prime, makes no such mistake: At times during Hercules, you could swear that you’re watching a comedy, and the film has clearly been steered towards humor. One wonders, though, if the director’s hand has been forced; there’s a rushed quality to the movie that feels like it may have been heavily sliced and diced in post. Particularly during some very, very brief flashbacks to Hercules’s life back in Athens and the grisly fate of his original family, it feels as if we’re seeing castaway pieces from a bigger, more ambitious movie. But we’ve seen that movie before, over and over again. This Hercules is fine for what it is — a fun, disposable trifle.