Believe it or not, “Hercules” has something in common with another movie that opened the same weekend, “Lucy.” Anyone would be forgiven for thinking they had nothing in common, but both address the theme of divinity versus humanity from very different, still wholly entertaining angles.
“Hercules,” has seen many adaptations of its mythic title character. Some of who have played him, like Ryan Gosling in the series “Young Hercules,” would rather forget. Not so for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays him this time around.
In an action movie, you can expect a few things. Wisecracking sidekicks? Check. Kinda boring implied love interest? Check. Token action girl to satisfy today's demographic? Check. Pretty much perfect hero who nevertheless has a dark past that haunts him? Check and check.
But as long as you can accept this, you'll have a great time. With a movie like this, we all know our destination, so whether or not we enjoy the ride depends on our star. Luckily, we have our aforementioned lead, who is so charismatic that audiences still cheered for him when he played a bad guy in his wrestling days. This version has Hercules working as a mercenary with a band of merry companions. He's not only well aware of the myths that have sprung up about his background as the son of Zeus and his deeds, he's decided to encourage them, seeing as how they're great for business. Here, Hercules is the sum of the people around him, and the fact that he needs them to accomplish his legendary deeds makes him stronger, not weaker.
When John Hurt (yes, that John Hurt is in this movie) hires him to defend his kingdom from a vicious warlord for more money than usual, he and his gang sign up (after the obligatory I just want to ride off into a peaceful life speech). And it seems this mission will enable them to retire like kings. Oh yeah, John Hurt just happens to have a hot daughter, and she also just happens to have an adorable son. And it turns out this mission may be more complicated than it seems, which could just make the hero's complicated backstory rear its ugly head.
But Hercules has a more tragic one than most: he used to have a wife and kids, but they were murdered, and his memories of that night are fuzzy at best. Did he actually kill his family? Or is something else afoot that may somehow be tied in to their seemingly simple mission?
Yeah, we all know how this ends. But the fact that we still manage to enjoy ourselves along the way is is due to a few factors. One of which is the talent. Dwayne Johnson is the movie's center, and he brings everything he has, mentally and physically, to the role, which means the moments that could rightfully be considered over-the-top are genuinely awe-inspiring. He is determined to drag you from your own apathy, kicking and screaming if need be. It may not be high art, but it is what's brought him a lasting career from the ring to the movies, and made him a bonafide star in both.
Such commitment tends to bring out the best in the people around you. John Hurt has already been mentioned, but there's also names like Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, and Joseph Fiennes, who all get at least a few moments to show off (and in the case of all of Johnson's companions, say what brought them there).
The writing, which can save or sink any movie, here adds to the charm. In this genre, the characters can easily exist only to move from one fight scene to the next. (Looking at you, “Pirates Of The Caribbean” sequels!) But even when the action is at its height, the focus never leaves the characters. Little is taken too seriously, and there are plenty of zingers to go around. And amidst the stylized combat and ancient battle scenes, we actually get a glimpse at the brutality of warfare, but luckily “Hercules” knows it limits and it doesn't look too closely.
“Hercules” may not say anything new, but there's something so charming about a film that proudly embraces what it is. Accepting that won't result in a hug but rather a very satisfying form of action movie whiplash.