Having completed all (but one) of his legendary labours and built up a mythical reputation as a superhuman demi-god, Hercules (Johnson) works as a roving mercenary alongside a motley bunch of merry men (and one woman). But when is hired by Lord Cotys of Thrace (Hurt) to take on an army of deadly marauders, things get problematic.
Based on the graphic novel by Steve Moore, Brett Ratner’s Hercules (boy, we love typing those three words) aims to show us the real Greek hero: the man rather than the demi-god, the truth rather than the legend. Yet this is no grim, gritty, ‘Nolanized’ rethink of the popular ancient myth. Of course it isn’t. This is Brett Ratner’s Hercules. And you know what? It’s way more fun than shovelling divine-cattle dung.
Speaking of which, it begins with, and pivots around, a great in-joke. Any scene featuring an obviously CG monster (hydra, giant boar, burly lion) is revealed as being bullshit. Made-up. As any audience member would expect from watching The Rock take on an obviously CG monster. It’s a neat, expectation-undercutting visual trick that we’re pretty sure is deliberate. Those Twelve Labours? Flagrantly embellished, to increase our hero’s currency as a hired sword (well, club). Meanwhile, until the final act at least (and aside from the occasional wide- or aerial shot), Hercules’ battles are impressively practical: good ol’ fashioned human-on-human rough-housing with only minor digital augmentation. Ratner keeps it real. (Well, mostly.)
Despite loping around in the Steve Reeves-superplus form of Dwayne Johnson, this Hercules ain’t Olympian. He couldn’t achieve nearly as much without his pals, a Mythnificent Seven (minus one), if you will. And they’re a fun crew to hang with, including Rufus Sewell’s knife-throwing Autolycus and his dry asides; Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s Amazon archeress Atalanta — aka Legolass; and Ian McShane serving up succulent ham on a giant-spear kebab as the amusingly precognitive old-timer Amphiaraus. There is also Aksel Hennie from Headhunters as a mute berserker. He’s not The Rock, but he rocks.
The surprising thing is that Johnson himself is the dourest of this lot, having to suffer throughout those ever-inevitable inner demons. It’s a shame we’re not seeing him do the loud, braggart version of Hercules who was so much fun in Jason And The Argonauts. Still, Ratner’s a savvy enough showman to gift him a few brilliant zingers. Our favourite? “Fucking centaurs.”
Pushing the 12A rating as far as it can, this is brisk, brutal, silly (in a good way) pulp entertainment, whose clunky exposition and continuity errors can be easily forgiven. Harder to swallow is the way it lets its own central conceit down during a blandly OTT and muscle-headed final blast. Still, while it may not be Conan The Barbarian (1982), it’s certainly far superior to Conan The Barbarian (2011).
With Hercules, Brett Ratner and Dwayne Johnson are out to entertain you no more, no less. And that is just what they do.