For whatever reason, there's been a flood of sword and sandal epics charging toward the screen. But Brett Ratner's Hercules, already the second film starring the mythical demi-god to be released this year, is the best of the lot. Unsurprisingly, this feature lacks the polish and ambition of the year's weightier blockbusters like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the sublime Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But what it lacks in ambition, it makes up for in pure thrills.
It's been years since Hercules completed his mythical labors, and stories of his gallantry have spread far across Greece, which benefits Herc and his merry band of mercenaries just fine since a résumé that can double as a child's bedtime story is worth its weight in gold. But when King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) enlists Hercules to end a rebellion that threatens to send his city into chaos, a quest that has the untrained Thracian soldiers whispering nervously of monsters, beasts, and an evil sorcerer, the mighty son of Zeus might not have the gods on his side.
Who knew a film by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne Johnson would have more than two brain cells to mush together? Hercules boasts a narrative that's all about the power of mythmaking; it examines the way legends grow, spread, balloon, and deflate, and takes the classic Hercules story in unexpected directions in a nicely subversive, clever way.
The Rock's brawny good looks do the Greco-Roman demi-god his due justice, and the hulking hero's physique looks like a supreme feat of nature (and the gym). But even through the muscles and leather armor, Johnson's natural charisma shines through. While The Rock is the centerpiece of the film, the true highlights are his supporting cast of heroes, who fire off expertly loaded quips when necessary. The standout here is Ian McShane's soothsaying Amphiaraus, whose quest to meet his fate often requires standing right in the way of flaming spears. The jokes sometimes feel anachronistically modern, but they mesh well enough into a story that's wholly uninterested in adhering to classic representations of ancient Greecian myths.
Hercules is by no measure a great film. Hell, I'd even be cautious to call it a good film. The suspect CGI and cheesy costumes break the spell all too often, but it's such a cheerfully ridiculous take on Hercules myth that it's nearly irresistible. The film is knowingly doofy and hits every rung of the standard action adventure, but does so with such a spirited commitment to the material and swashbuckling sense of fun, it's hard not to buy into its legend.