No one will ever accuse Dwayne Johnson of being a great actor. Fortunately, he doesn't have to be one to portray the legendary Hercules, the half-man, half-god son of Zeus. Pretty much all he has to do is look buff, slay beasts, and engage in battles in which he kills scores of men. And the charismatic Johnson does all of that and more, with aplomb, in Brett Ratner's swift, intensely violent sword-and-sandal spectacle.
The story begins with a thrilling, brisk prologue that quickly establishes Hercules' background, his well-known 12 labors, and his growing legend. But is he really an all-powerful god or merely a man who has embraced the myth and made his fortune from it? Initially, all Hercules wants to be is a husband and a father. But when his wife and children are murdered, he becomes a mercenary for hire, with a ragtag bunch that includes a droll seer (Ian McShane), an expert archer (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and an animal-like mute (Aksel Hennie). Also along for the adventure are Hercules' sheltered nephew (Reece Ritchie), who can't wait to prove he is as good a soldier as he is a storyteller, and Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), our hero's cynical childhood friend, who isn't interested in glory, only gold. And plenty of gold awaits them when they are hired by Cotys (John Hurt), the lord of Thrace, to train his army and defeat a rebel faction that is slaughtering innocents far and wide. As for plot, that's about it, with a sinister, unsurprising twist thrown in.
What is most surprising about Hercules is its PG-13 rating. Hercules and his comrades kill hundreds and hundreds of men, with swords, spears, arrows, and good old-fashioned beatings. There is even a chariot equipped with protruding, razor-sharp blades that would make James Bond envious. While there isn't much gore, there is enough blood and bone-crushing mayhem to cause parents to take the rating seriously before taking young kids into the theater.
Ratner, the director of Rush Hour, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Tower Heist, clearly isn't interested much in character development, engaging dialogue or a profound story. What he is interested in is delivering rousing action scenes that will entertain fanboys around the world, and they will find much to like here. What they may be disappointed in is the running time. The movie clocks in at just over 90 minutes and some may swear that it's shorter because Ratner rarely takes his foot off the throttle with almost endless brawls and battles. But in a time when many Hollywood tent poles run well over two-and-a-half hours, the film's brevity is a blessing.
Dwayne Johnson's Hercules isn't great cinema, but it is rock solid. It is a well-made B-movie that conjures memories of classic adventures like Captain Blood and Spartacus, and more recently the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But with a lot more deaths.
The film looks great in IMAX 3D, but it isn't necessary, like most movies in the more expensive format. Use the extra money for a soda and popcorn. After all, Hercules is, if nothing else, the definitive popcorn flick.