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.
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.
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 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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