Look, it’s a Brett Ratner movie. It does the currently popular revisionist bit on an established character — a long established character. It stars The Rock as Hercules. Seriously, how good do you expect Hercules to be? Exactly. The surprise is that — for what it is — it’s really not that bad. This is not a recommendation, but neither is it a condemnation. It simply joins the long list of relatively negligible but mostly painless moviegoing experiences that make up much of a critic’s life. Before you undertake it, just ask yourself whether you want a de-mythification of the story starring The Rock as a Hercules who surveys impending danger and mutters that fine old Greek phrase, “Fucking centaurs.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie, though, being PG-13, the centaur bit shoots its F-word wad (so to speak).
Much as I am over this whole revisionist kick with classic stories, I’ll concede that it’s probably the best approach for a movie that’s trying to sell The Rock as Hercules — and even more so when it’s a movie that can’t keep its Greek and Roman myths straight. So here, rather than being the usual Hercules story, we’re given a Hercules who probably isn’t a demigod, and whose feats are rather more mundane than usual. For instance, the Hydra seems to have been a gang of bandits wearing some kind of reptile drag. Moreover, he has a posse of helpers — Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) — who assist in pulling off his amazing feats. Above and beyond this, he has Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), a young man who serves the function of an ancient world press agent, extolling the tales of brave Hercules.
None of this is all that new. In 1947’s Sinbad the Sailor, Sinbad (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) was less the swashbuckling hero than the legend of Sinbad’s own hot air — until he has to become his own myth, naturally. Of course, Hercules probably only goes back to A Knight’s Tale (2001) where the hero’s (Heath Ledger) background and accomplishments are all created by Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). (Things change very little in Hollywood — even when Hollywood is Hungary pretending to be Greece, as it is here.) Whatever the genesis of this approach, it works more than it doesn’t. And frankly, without Ian McShane’s prophetic helper and Rufus Sewell’s sarcastic sidekick, the movie wouldn’t be much fun. The Rock may be an ingratiating screen presence, but they have most of the best lines — and they know how to deliver them.
The plot is no great shakes — Hercules and company come to the aid of Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to dispose of a marauding enemy. Even its big twist and subplot wrinkle aren’t especially surprising. But the whole thing seems to be crafted to play to audience expectations, and that’s not a bad thing with this kind of disposable entertainment. It helps that the action scenes are unusually coherent. Either Brett Ratner has a heretofore unseen knack for action, or (as seems more likely) he has an ace second unit making him look really good. Regardless, it’s fairly impressively accomplished. Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity.