War has come to Thrace. Its king, Lord Cotys (John Hurt), has lost a great many men trying to keep an evil warlord from invading. His army is full of farmers and merchants, all untrained men. Supernatural forces may be conspiring against Thrace. His daughter and her son are both too young and unproven to take the throne in due course. But lo, there is a legend, of a man whose physical feats could save the kind townspeople of Thrace and restore peace to the land. The legend may not have spoken of a bearded ne’er-do-well who wears the pelt of the Nemean Lion like an ancient hoodie, but then this isn’t exactly the traditional story of Hercules at all.
Hercules is very much a Brett Ratner joint, and this is more beneficial than might be expected. Rather than a messy, undisciplined creation à laX-Men: The Last Stand, his take on the most famous Roman tale is a throwback to the kind of action film that populated American theaters in the mid-to-late 1990s, an extravaganza of endearing rogues, nonstop one-liners, and a generally tongue-in-cheek approach to the material. In Johnson and Ratner’s hands, Hercules is less a grandiose fantasy yarn than a briskly paced, fleet-footed caper through a Macedonia fraught with war. Your mileage may vary, and is largely dependent on how much The Rock shaking his head and uttering the words “fucking centaurs” might entertain or bother you.
The film establishes early that it’s not really a straight retelling of the legend in the vein of Renny Harlin’s woeful The Legend of Hercules from earlier this year, even if they both make the suspect decision to reduce the 12 trials of Hercules to mere prologue. As Ian McShane’s mad prophet Amphiaraus notes, “you think you know the truth? You have no idea.” Setting aside Hercules’ setup as the most ambitious episode of MTV’s True Life ever filmed, the film jumps to Hercules (Johnson) as the handsome, wizened leader of a band of mercenaries. From a mad dog to the token female to McShane as a seer continually beset by visions of his own demise, Hercules offers an enjoyably preposterous supporting cast that sustains the film even when it’s bogged down by its own need to explain every relevant detail several times over.
And oh, how it does. There’s a lot of plot at work in Hercules, and while it’s to the film’s benefit that it races through much of it or settles it with bursts of surprisingly graphic PG-13 violence, there are still a few too many scenes of characters explaining the film’s backstory and stakes to one another. As these stories usually go, Hercules also has a tortured backstory involving the violent demise of his comely wife (Irina Shayk, around for a quick bit of rear nudity followed by a hasty fridging), which adds to the giddy thrill of seeing Johnson rise above the odds and declare in a bellow that he is in fact Hercules, but also feels like an obvious beat even for a film like this one.
But then, obvious appears to be Ratner’s starting point here, and Hercules is so consistently fun that the film’s total familiarity feels more comforting than cheap. Where so many blockbusters in this summer and in recent others have embraced assiduous gravity as a default mode,Hercules is in the business of macho banter and suspicious kings and rousing fight sequences. And because the film is built around the question of the true nature of Hercules’ legend, Johnson gets to create a new hero, one that both anachronistically feels a lot like his in-ring persona from a former life and is totally appropriate for a sword-and-sandal mini-epic like this. Johnson would’ve made for a fine B-movie lead in another life, andHercules can’t be faulted for doing him a solid and turning into one.