Hercules—which stars Dwayne Johnson as the brawny, bearded hero of Greek myth—is a scaled down club-and-sandals movie with a good ratio of scenery-chewing to choppy-shutter-angle skull-cracking. It’s also a half-hearted, but largely admirable, attempt at a revisionist take on the subject, where the supernatural elements are confined to dream sequences and silhouettes, suggesting a world prone to viewing itself in mythological terms. Centaurs are really just men on horseback, the Hydra merely a group of bandits who wear monster masks, and Hercules isn’t a demigod.
In fact, he isn’t even one person. The “real” Hercules is a team—consisting of Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and Tydeus (Aksel Hennie)—who use their leader’s name and fame to secure mercenary work, with runt nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) acting as their PR machine, rattling off stories about slain monsters and divine blood to anyone within earshot. The movie—adapted from The Thracian Wars, a series by the late British comics mainstay Steve Moore—is packed with ambitious ideas about how to tell a Hercules story while holding on to the notion that heroism isn’t fated, but is instead the result of people making decisions and working together. Johnson’s Hercules functions like a star in a collaborative medium; his face and name draw crowds and cash, but, when it comes down to it, he’s just another hard-working specialist in a team full of them.
Too bad, then, that these ideas are mostly sidelined by a brisk—but largely unremarkable—ancient Greek adventure which finds the Hercules unit accepting an assignment from Cotys (John Hurt), king of Thrace, to train his army in exchange for their leader’s weight in gold. It’s a “one last score” type deal; the payout will be enough for the team to quit the mercenary trade, and for Hercules—a fugitive from Athens, where he is accused of killing his wife and children—to retire to a quiet farming life on the Black Sea.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson makes for a perfect movie-star Hercules, and the film gets a lot of mileage by playing his charismatic-but-modest take on the character off of the strong, predominantly British cast. (Peter Mullan and Joseph Fiennes pop up in smaller roles.) Equally unsurprising is that fact that Brett Ratner’s direction of the action scenes—though more spatially coherent than the Hollywood norm—rarely rises above the merely serviceable. Hercules may be a smarter movie than either Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii or Renny Harlin’s Hercules: The Legend Begins (whose title gets mocked in the dialogue), but it lacks the former’s sense of scale and spectacle, and never accomplishes anything as visceral as the latter’s opening shot.