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Hercules Review: Solidly Entertaining Summer Fare

Dwayne Johnson's Hercules is simply enjoyable, but check your expectations at the door.

Director Brett Ratner gets so little respect these days, and who can blame us? After the disastrous X-Men: The Last Stand sent the franchise to ground until 2011, he hasn't exactly won us over with other tripe like Tower Heist. So, it's with a great sigh of relief that I can say Hercules is a highly entertaining, suitably grand, and a well-paced historical action piece, so long as you check expectations at the door.

The son of Zeus, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) has made a name for himself, completing the Seven Labors set forth by a jealous Hera and attaining the title of demi-god. But his achievements hide a deep secret. One of them is that he had help in his labors - among them the warrior Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), and the Amazon Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). His travels eventually take him to the kingdom of Thrace where King Cotys (John Hurt) and Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) implore him to save their lands from a barbarous warlord; but only the promise of his weight in gold will be enough. Hercules also harbors deep secrets about the death of his family, which forced him into exile and his current mercenary status. Soon, a deep betrayal will force him to rethink everything he knows about the kingdom he's sworn to protect.

We're never quite sure if Hercules really is the son of a god, or some yoked-up, adrenaline-lace dude with incredible strength. Ratner and Writer Ryan Condral keep that one pretty close to the vest even to the end, allowing narrator McShane to tie up an important loose end. There's lots of comedic gems between the action including the repeated theme of one of Hercules rescuing women in "exciting bondage." This line goes over well with the princess' young son, to which Hercules intervenes with a gentle, "Do you even know what that means?" But the strength of Hercules lies not in the large action set pieces or in the umpteenth re-telling of the Greek tale, but of its humanizing of the demi-god - and the necessity of a team to help him - that works the best. This gives the characters something to fight for, standing together as more of a family than cold-killing mercs. Yes, Hercules is massive and Johnson looks the part, but it's clear that his Seven Labors could not have been accomplished without the team. McShane and Sewell enjoy the best-drawn characters, with lots of tasty one-liners to utter while slicing and dicing the competition. Although he keeps seeing his own death, Amphiaraus's wish (and continual denial through luck) is played up here just enough for it to be enjoyable. The others - including Berdal - aren't just there to sport their good looks, but enjoy singular moments with just enough background on them before some meet untimely ends.

Ratner mixes the epic fight scenes with plenty of political intrigue, allowing us to learn more about the ancient world without feeling we're getting a dolled-up history lesson. The scale is epic without looking too cheap, even if some of the baddies are not quite drawn out as well as they should. Joseph Fiennes' performance as Hercules' former king feels like it was shot in two days, as he's literally in the film for all of five minutes. It's Hurt who enjoys far more time to craft his character, making his deception a but more enjoyable when it's finally unleashed. But none of this is worthwhile unless you check your expectations at the door. This is more Clash of the Titans, less Gladiator, and so long as you're ready to be entertained by a giant of a man in Johnson and some lightly-coated historical action, you should do just fine.

For all the classically-trained British actors yelling out orders, Johnson has slowly cultivated his persona - and skills - into one of the most affable personalities in film. He may have been born with a great smile, but his hulking figure also gives way to scenes of pure humanity as he's taunted by nightmares of his fallen family. This couldn't have been the Johnson we knew in Scorpion King, and it's good to see his growth demonstrated in such fine form. He might never win an Oscar, but in terms of pure enjoyability, you can't go wrong with him. The score by relative newcomer Fernando Velázquez is epic and will keep you marching to Ratner's beat - it's one of my favorite of the year.

Hercules might find box office success, but it will be a hard slog as its lack of marketing and competition from Lucy means it has one week to make an impression before Guardians of the Galaxy unleashes its savory goodness. In that time, see Hercules and get the big popcorn and soda too - they're the perfect addition to this Summer stunner.

Hercules is rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity and has a runtime of 98 minutes.

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