A band of mercenaries led by Hercules (Dwayne Johnson), roams the countryside offering their fighting abilities to the highest bidder.  In his crew are the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) who divines the future based on information the gods give him and also is an expert with a staff, Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) who is an expert with throwing knives, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a fierce and bloodthirsty warrior who never speaks, Atalanata (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a skilled archer and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Hercules nephew who spreads the legend of the demigod far and wide to attract business and to frighten enemies.  After running a band of pirates out of the kingdom of their last client, Hercules is approached by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt).  Cotys is the Lord of Thrace and the land is in the midst of a civil war.  Crops are being destroyed and most of Cotys’ army has been killed by the warlord Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).  Cotys wants Hercules and his team to train the remaining troops, made up mostly by farmers and merchants, to fight Rhesus and his men who are said to be mighty Centaurs.  Hercules and the mercenaries travel to Thrace and meet with Lord Cotys and his general Sitacles (Peter Mullan).  While there, Hercules meets Ergenia’s son Arius (Isaac Andrews) who is a big fan of the son of Zeus and knows all of his legendary 12 labors by heart.  Hercules is impressed by the young boy but this brings back memories of his wife and children who were murdered.  Hercules has no memory of what happened and has been accused of being the killer.  He often dreams of a three-headed dog called Cerberus chasing and attacking him.  Hercules agrees to help Lord Cotys for double his weight in gold as Hercules wants to leave the mercenary life behind and live out his days in peace in the wilderness, far from any more war and strife; but the gods often put roadblocks in the way of a warrior seeking a quiet life.
Make sure to empty your bladder before walking into the theatre to watch “Hercules.”  I usually give this warning for films that have lengthy run times; but in the case of this movie, you’ll want to make sure you don’t have to go to the bathroom because the relatively short running time of 98 minutes means the action starts quickly and doesn’t slow down very often or for very long.  Director Brett Ratner could teach Michael Bay and others how to make an interesting and exciting film that doesn’t run over two hours.  Ratner and screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos have crafted a film that is at times exciting and goofy but never dull.
This will sound odd but “Hercules” is grounded in a fair amount of reality.  I realize that sounds weird given the subject matter but I promise, this isn’t your usual swords-and-sandals movie despite what you see in the trailer.  I don’t want to give too much away because discovering this information is what makes the movie so fun.  I will let you know that you get some mythic creatures as well as some very down to earth monsters.  It makes for a film that doesn’t feel quite as silly as it might otherwise.
While the whole cast is very good, Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane stand out.  Both characters add a great deal of humor to the movie.  Sewell as Autolycus is the more cynical member of Hercules’ band of merry mercenaries.  He’s quick to assume the worst and he’s usually right.  Autolycus is in the mercenary business as a way to get rich.  He’s not interested in the excitement of battle or the honors showered on the victor.  He merely wants to be paid so that one day he can live like a king.  Sewell seems to be having a great deal of fun in the role as does Ian McShane as Amphiaraus the mystic who has been shown the date of his death by the gods.  McShane can deliver a biting line of sarcasm with the best of them and does it frequently here.  Amphiaraus has no fear going into battle because he knows that day isn’t his last, at least according to the gods who have been known to lie to humans.  His pragmatism seems to be in conflict with his mysticism; but McShane’s performance is able to meld the two into a believable whole.  Sewell’s and McShane’s characters give the film a great deal of humor without it feeling too jokey.  It’s a good mix of action and laughs that every action movie should strive for.
Dwayne Johnson certainly has the body for Hercules.  According to Johnson in an interview, he trained for eight months to get into the shape we see on screen.  One must admire his dedication to the physical requirements of a movie role.  Sadly, Johnson comes up a bit short on the acting side.  He’s perfectly fine in the role but there are a few scenes that required something more than bulging biceps and pecs and Johnson just doesn’t deliver.  I suppose it’s asking too much for a muscular actor to also be a good actor; but The Rock’s shortcomings are on display in a few scenes.  Fortunately, there aren’t many times where Johnson has to dig deep into his emotional well to try and drag up something meaningful.  Most of the time, Hercules is either bellowing out a war cry or reacting to something that doesn’t call for much more than a smile or a scowl.  Johnson’s less than Oscar-caliber acting skills don’t take much away from the overall enjoyment of the movie.
When looking at the trailer, I was concerned about the quality of the special effects.  There are some CG creatures that looked flat and rather fake.  All those concerns are taken care of with the beasts looking as real as the primates in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”  The rest of the special effects are seamless as well with several of Hercules’ feats of strength either augmented with CGI or expert stunt work.  Several battle scenes show Hercules in action, performing some spectacular moves and sending enemies flying in all directions.  These action scenes don’t stretch believability to the breaking point once we get past the mythical beasts.
The story, based on a graphic novel by Steve Moore, moves at a quick pace that rarely slows down and offers no opportunity to get bored.  The action gets going quickly and keeps coming.  Even the more dialog-heavy scenes feel like something could happen at any moment.  Ratner, known for action movies like the “Rush Hour” series, has proven he knows how to make things happen in his movies audiences like.  The fact that “Hercules” has its action pedal-to-the-metal from the opening scene is really no surprise.  Ratner’s film making style isn’t terribly subtle and for action fare like “Hercules” that’s not a weakness.  You want the bad guys to be really bad, the monsters to be really monstrous and the good guys to be better than just good.  The fact that Ratner’s villains have multiple motivations and his heroes are of the more troubled variety is a sign of increased confidence as a director.  While mainstream critics tend to be in the middle on Ratner’s work, his box office success as both a director and a producer is hard to ignore.  He seems to be putting out movies people like.
“Hercules” is rated PG-13 for some sensuality, intense combat action and violence.  The sensuality consists mostly of scantily clad dancing girls.  Frankly, it isn’t that sensual.  There are numerous fight scenes featuring massive battles.  People are frequently shown being stabbed by knives and swords, shot by arrows and clunked by Hercules’ giant spiked club.  We see a village that’s been attacked with the heads of victims on pikes.  One character uses a whip that appears to be made from the vertebra of people or some other animal.  It leaves abrasions on the skin.  There isn’t a huge amount of blood and not too much gore.  Foul language is sparse but the film does use its one PG-13 allowed “F-bomb”.
The cheesiness that used to be the hallmark of the old Italian “Hercules” films from the 1950’s and 1960’s is largely gone in this modern retelling.  The film certainly has its moments of silliness and, perhaps, trying too hard to get a laugh, but otherwise is a fairly grounded story of a warrior and his friends traveling the countryside looking for battles to fight in exchange for payment.  Take away the muscles and the mythical creatures and it could be the story of a hard-working hero who is trying to feed his family and make something more of himself while seeking redemption for a troubled past.  While that might make a fine drama, it probably wouldn’t have been as entertaining as this particular exciting tale.  Go on a quest to raise the money and see for yourself.
“Hercules” gets five guitars.
Small, personal stories, international intrigue, legendary entertainers and unlikely outer space heroes all want your attention this week.  Vote for the next movie I see and review.
A Most Wanted Man—When a half-Chechen, half-Russian, brutally tortured immigrant turns up in Hamburg’s Islamic community, laying claim to his father’s ill-gotten fortune, both German and US security agencies take a close interest.
Get On Up—A chronicle of James Brown's rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.
Guardians of the Galaxy—In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.
Wish I Was Here—A struggling actor, father and husband, who at 35, is still trying to find his identity; a purpose for his life.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres or On Demand.
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