The ancient Greece of Brett Ratner’s enjoyably silly Hercules is mostly backdrop for an action-packed tale of a wandering warrior and his merry band of followers, and as such, the classical world works well enough for staging monsters and battles and reversals of royal skullduggery. Based on the comics by Steve Moore, the script dispenses with the legendary labors of Hercules (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson) by showing them in flashback during the film’s gonzo prologue, in which the muscleman battles preposterously huge (but well-executed) CGI creatures such as the many-headed Hydra. The opening narration, from Hercules’ storyteller nephew (Reece Ritchie as the requisite young hottie) may be laughably dumbed-down, especially Hercules’ demigod status (he’s the son of “Zeus, as in Zeus the god”) but once the plot gets going, it becomes increasingly involving and amusing.
Hercules is much respected for his mighty swing, and damn if Johnson doesn’t look powerful enough to knock an armored soldier through the air without the aid of special effects. Ratner smartly surrounds the bedeviled legend with a first-class cast, including his warrior sidekicks, Ian McShane as a seer and Rufus Sewell as a thief (both actors deliver their corny-comic dialogue with aplomb), along with an Amazon archer and a ferocious lookout. Following a tragedy that sent Hercules into exile as a sword-for-hire, he and his mercenaries find employment with the king of Thrace (John Hurt, who does the dramatic heavy lifting) and his widowed daughter (lovely Rebecca Ferguson from The White Queen). Thrace is under attack from the nefarious and, legend has it, black-magic-wielding Rhesus (Tobias Santel-Marin), who commands a mystical army of centaurs. All is not as it seems, however, and Hercules is haunted by events regarding his previous kingly employer (Joseph Fiennes).
The battle sequences of swords and arrows and axes and scythes are ably choreographed, relying on costuming and neat tricks of strategy instead of gore (admirably, there isn’t a single severed limb or spurting artery). This basic quest story also incorporates a simple but effective subplot touching on post-traumatic stress disorders, which is nicely tied into the rousing conclusion of all for one and one for all, in a tradition-tweaking melee that pays homage to the Hercules movies of the 1960s. Young teens and their parents may not find a better popcorn movie all summer.