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updated: 7/25/2014 12:14 PM

Rock-hard 'Hercules' a likeable take on demigod's tale

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  • Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) charges into battle in "Hercules."

      Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) charges into battle in "Hercules."

  • Video: "Hercules" trailer

 
By Stephen Farber
The Hollywood Reporter

Say this for Brett Ratner's production of "Hercules:" This movie has a sense of proportion. Running just over 90 minutes, the movie is often clunky, but at least it's fast and unpretentious. And its likable star, Dwayne Johnson, manages to murder legions without ever seeming sadistic. Less violent than "300," less compelling than "Gladiator," this new addition to the sword-and-sandals genre seems likely to please the fanboy audience and stir up some impressive box-office numbers.

The film begins by recounting the legend of Hercules, with snippets of his famous 12 labors. Johnson's Hercules (as envisioned by comic book author Steve Moore) is a flawed hero. Bereft over the murders of his wife and children, Hercules has joined up with a band of loyal comrades who will basically sell their services to the highest bidder. But you can bet it won't be too long before Hercules rediscovers a noble purpose. That happens when he is enlisted by the lovely daughter of the lord of Thrace to save her kingdom from civil war. Let the mayhem begin.

The story has a few twists up its sleeve, as heroes turn out to be treacherous and villains are more complex than first appearances suggest. There's just enough plot to keep the movie lurching forward, and there are plenty of battle scenes to delight connoisseurs of carnage. (The movie's PG-13 rating seems fairly lenient.) One problem with these battle scenes is the frenetic editing, an unfortunate staple of contemporary action pictures. On the positive side, the sets (by production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos) are impressive, and the crowd scenes, even if enhanced by CGI, stir happy memories of films like "Spartacus" and "Ben-Hur."

The classy cast also elevates the picture. Ian McShane gives a droll performance as a soothsayer who's always surviving predictions of his own death. John Hurt is working in the glorious tradition of Claude Rains in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" while Joseph Fiennes is doing a Basil Rathbone as his venal confederate. As the one woman in the troupe of mercenaries, Ingrid Bolso Berdal wields a mean bow and arrow. Tobias Santelmann has an imposing presence as Hercules' antagonist-turned-ally.

Johnson plays his role with good humor and conviction. When he finally breaks free of his chains and bellows, "I am Hercules," the audience responds with just the right degree of childish glee.

There are some neat 3-D effects, but as with so many recent 3-D offerings, the format doesn't seem absolutely essential. The cinematography by Ratner's frequent collaborator Dante Spinotti is vibrant, and the musical score by Fernando Velazquez is rousing. Most important, the pacing is snappy. It may sound like a backhanded compliment to praise this sometimes cheesy movie for never taking itself too seriously, but in a summer of bloated spectacles, this modesty should not be underestimated.

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