“Don’t just stand there – kill somebody!” bellows a warrior in Hercules, summing up the nonchalant irreverence of this latest effort from director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men: Last Stand). Running just over 90 minutes, with wisecracks, bloodless action, a cute kid and body armour that clings like lingerie, it’s a summer filler that aims low and doesn’t miss.
True to tradition, this Hercules wears a lion skin and fights with a club. The difference is there are five other people in the club who help do the fighting for him. Team Hercules includes his dagger-wielding friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell); sexy Amazonian ace archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal); and the mute, war-traumatized Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), who is good at head-butting his way through enemy lines. Rugged spear-man Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) is also a soothsayer who keeps failing to predict the timing of his own death.
Though he’s too puny to fight, one of the team’s most valuable members is Hercules’ nephew and biographer, smooth-talking Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). He is the one who came up with the 12 Labours bit, based on a series of real but improved-upon incidents.
Adapted from the Radical Comics series Hercules: The Thracian Wars by the late Steve Moore, the new movie presents Hercules as a mortal mercenary, not the demi-god spawn of Zeus juice. Raised on the mean streets of Athens, he bulked up impressively, learned to cock his eyebrow and say, “Look at me. Do I look afraid?” and he invented his own mythology to promote his soldiering career. All team members are privy to Hercules’ real story, which also includes the unsolved murder of his wife and children, for which he was the chief suspect.
The main story starts when Hercules gets a chance to save the beleaguered Kingdom of Thrace for a big payday, which may be enough to allow him to retire. The invitation comes from the King of Thrace (John Hurt), though the real draw is the king’s comely daughter, Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), the widowed single mom of a cute little boy.
Hercules’s job is to whip Thrace’s ragtag citizen army into a fighting unit quickly enough to defend themselves from the hordes of the terrifying warlord and reputed sorcerer Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). After a few football-style drill instructions (“Hold the shield wall!”), the big battle scenes unfold. By contemporary slice-and-dice standards, it’s coherent – the Thracian soldiers form a big rectangle and Hercules and his friends run around it slaughtering enemies using various techniques. The bad guys are a bit peculiar-looking – greenish skin, tufted beards, bald heads and tattoos – and they’re easily killable in high-volume skirmishes that are more comically acrobatic than gory.
The movie’s second half sees Hercules discovering he may have made a big mistake and making his pitch for “real hero” status, which involves many eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with some talented international performers. Those include the terrific Scottish actor-director Peter Mullan, as a frothing Thracian general; Joseph Fiennes as the simpering King of Athens; and the grim Santlemann (one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated Scandinavian film Kon-Tiki). Along with Hurt, these stage-trained pros are fun to watch as they struggle to bring Olympian weight to comic book fluff.
And why not? This is, after all, a movie that celebrates the ingenuity of mercenaries.