On paper, Brett Ratner sounds like such an improbable choice to direct a large-scale ancient Greek epic that, going into his “Hercules,” one could only hope for a less aggressively preposterous affair than Renny Harlin’s bargain-basement “The Legend of Hercules” from earlier this year. The happy surprise is that Ratner’s “Hercules” is more than a mere improvement on its predecessor. It’s a grandly staged, solidly entertaining, old-fashioned adventure movie that does something no other Hercules movie has quite done before: It cuts the mythical son of Zeus down to human size (or as human as you can get while still being played by Dwayne Johnson). The result is a far classier pic than Paramount’s frenetic trailer — and decision to hide the film from reviewers until the 11th hour — foretold, albeit one that will struggle to find its sea legs at a crowded and underperforming summer box office. Overseas prospects look sunnier.
Ratner’s film owes its counter-canonical premise to the late author Steve Moore, whose five-issue Radical Comics series “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” proffered a Herc who was markedly more man than god, his supposedly divine paternity a useful legend but perhaps no more than that. Screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos have sanded down many of Moore’s rougher edges (including his Hercules’ volatile temperament and bisexuality) for this more family-friendly enterprise, but they’ve built on the idea of the warrior hero as a self-conscious mythmaker, inventing practical, real-world explanations for all of his seemingly superhuman feats. If the gods exist, they’re nowhere to be seen here. The multiheaded hydra Hercules reputedly slayed during the second of his storied 12 labors has become a band of marauders disguised with serpentine masks. And what of a supposed army of half-human, half-equine centaurs? Or Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades? All can be explained as mere tricks of the light, or the mind, while Hercules’ dutiful nephew and self-appointed biographer Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) transfigures the narrative into legend as he spreads it up and down the Greek countryside.
The stories prove good for business, Hercules being in the mercenary-for-hire trade, which he practices in concert with a quartet of trusted confidants: Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), a childhood friend who rose with the orphaned Hercules through the ranks of the Athenian army; the fearsome Amazonian warrior Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal); shell-shocked mute Tydeus (the impressive Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie, from “Headhunters”); and mystical seer Amphiaraus (a superbly hammy Ian McShane), who sees much but is at a loss to unravel the mystery of the violent incident in Hercules’ past that turned him from conquering hero into restless wanderer. The group has a relaxed, Hawksian interplay with touches of humor — Amphiaraus, who claims to have presaged his own death, keeps misjudging the timing of the fated event. They also have one sole objective: a last big score that will allow them to settle into early retirement. (Civilization, Hercules muses, has become too much to bear — which, considering we’re still in the Iron Age, is really saying something.)
Opportunity knocks in the form of Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), who implores Hercules and his cohorts to come to the aid of her embattled father, the kindly King Cotys (John Hurt), whose kingdom of Thrace finds itself at war with the powerful sorcerer Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). So off to Thrace they go, with the objective of turning Cotys’ population of tenant farmers into a skilled fighting army.
In terms of sheer scale and craftsmanship, “Hercules” represents something of a quantum leap for Ratner, who until now has seemed most comfortable at the helm of lightly diverting, ’80s-style buddy comedies (“Money Talks,” “Rush Hour,” “Tower Heist”), and who appeared profoundly out of his element on the profitable but incomprehensible “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006). But Ratner has clearly learned a lot about large-scale action directing since then. “Hercules” consists primarily of three elaborate battle scenes held together by some quickly dispatched exposition, and the first — and grandest — of them is a genuine stunner. Arriving at the smoldering remnants of a village seemingly destroyed by Rhesus’ army, Hercules’ troops find themselves ambushed by legions of steely-eyed warriors in camouflaged body paint (think several thousand Col. Kurtzes from “Apocalypse Now”), and the violent rumble that ensues is staged by Ratner and ace cinematographer Dante Spinotti in clean, coherent pieces of action that build steadily in intensity.
We’re a long way away here from the disorienting whiplash effect of most modern action movies, as sweeping overhead vistas give way to carefully framed medium shots and closeups that hone in on specific bits of action. Bone and sinew smash against swords and chariot wheels. Arrows rain down from the skies (and, in the unusually good 3D conversion, right into the audience). Shields and armor clang resoundingly on the Dolby Atmos soundtrack. And while the battle proves devastating for those on both sides, viewers may find themselves exhilarated and slightly giddy at the end of it.
If “Hercules” isn’t quite as compelling off the battlefield as on, it certainly never dawdles, clocking in at just under 90 minutes (sans credits) and keeping ever mindful that the audience for a movie like this is there for the big guns (or, in this case, the big swords) and not the small talk. Ratner holds his ambitions in check: He isn’t trying to make his “Gladiator” or “Fall of the Roman Empire” here, and for all the handsome craftsmanship, he never tries to deny the Hercules story’s intrinsic schlock value. At its best, the movie harks back to the unpretentious fantasy adventures of an earlier era, chiefly Columbia Pictures programmers like “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), right up to a fiery pit of doom finally complete with flaming torches, plummeting iron gates and one character enthusiastically bellowing “Unleash the wolves!” (All this before someone gets crushed by a giant stone bust of Hera.)
Ratner was smart to stack the cast with the kind of classically trained British pros who can make a line like “Unleash the wolves!” sound faintly Shakespearean. But “Hercules’” strongest asset is surely Johnson, who continues to foster one of the most affable, guileless screen personas in movies today. Johnson may have been born with screen presence wired into his DNA, but he’s gradually cultivated the skills of a canny actor who knows just how to play to the camera and whose brute physical prowess is cut with a sly self-awareness. More than anything else, it’s he who gives this Hercules his human-sized soul.
Among the uniformly top-drawer craft contributions, longtime James Cameron collaborator John Bruno merits special mention for his wonderfully tactile, detailed visual effects work, as does production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos (“Amour”) for his sprawling storybook sets.