The mightily entertaining “Hercules” manages to put a new spin on age-old mythology. Taking its inspiration from the Radical Comics reinterpretation of Greek lore, it recasts the great warrior as a mere (but supremely buff) mortal. All that talk about his divine ancestry, demigod status and those impossible twelve labors? Just so much public-relations hot air spun by his silver-tongued nephew.
Dwayne Johnson, perhaps the only actor around who can look superhuman and self-deprecating at once, wears the title role like a custom tailored lion skin.
Here he’s a soldier for hire, fighting for honorable causes when they’re available and as a mercenary when he needs to. With a group of fighters including an Amazonian archer, a wily soothsayer, a sly knife expert and a nonverbal berserker, Hercules allies himself with Thracian King Cotys (John Hurt), whose realm is threatened by marauders.
That’s his story anyway. In this tightly plotted tale, though, things are not often what they seem and the motives of the powerful are always suspect. There is as much skulduggery and back-stabbery in this version of ancient Greece as in a season of “Game of Thrones.” Notions of what makes a just battle change as the story evolves, just as the standard version of Herc’s exploits and tragic back story get intriguing twists. There are tales of centaur armies and the three-headed devil dog Cerberus, which have unexpected reality-based explanations. Yes, this is a stunt-heavy adventure, but it has surprises up its muscle-filled sleeve.
There’s plenty of offhand humor, too. Director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”) keeps the pace skipping along while finding time for our hero’s sidekicks to slip in some engaging character comedy. Ian McShane is wonderfully droll as the group’s prophet. He’s nonchalant in battle because he’s foreseen his own death, but never gets the moment right. Rufus Sewell projects a strong personality as the pragmatist of the outfit, willing to sell the outfit’s services to the highest bidder. Danish star Aksel Hennie (“Headhunters”) is near-unrecognizable as a silent, facially scarred wild man, popping his eyes in an expression both intimidating and nutty. Johnson has some nice light moments too, complaining that he’s ready for retirement because civilization is getting too civilized. The movie even works in a satirical jab at the recent Kellan Lutz misfire “The Legend of Hercules.”
The unusually classy supporting cast includes the British actors Peter Mullan and Joseph Fiennes, who can snarl comic-book dialogue as if it were Shakespeare. The real meat and potatoes of the film are the epic battle scenes, staged with widescreen sweep, energy and attention to geographical logic. When fiery arrows rain down from the skies or chariots race through crowds of combatants, you’re never puzzled about point of view. Saturday matinees were made for this.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186