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In Movies & TV Reviews

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson wears a not-so PETA-approved lion pelt in "Hercules," now playing.

The Rock's "Hercules" is a big ol' beefy slab of B-movie fun

Like asteroid-related apocalypses, Snow White, magicians and White House attacks before, the son of Zeus is the latest story so nice, Hollywood needed to tell it twice. In one year.

The first attempt was also one of the first movies of 2014: Renny Harlin's "The Legend of Hercules," a direct-to-DVD quality attempt to merge beloved movies like "300" and "Gladiator" with early '00s special effects, '90s-level craftsmanship and Cro-Magnon Man era performances. I already ranted about the film when it came out earlier this year, so now I'll simply say it should be shot into the sun and let it get back to doing what it does best: collecting dust and being forgotten.

It's safe to say the bar wasn't set particularly high for Brett Ratner's "Hercules" (and having no critics screenings nationwide only dropped it lower). Then again, that's a good place to start expectations for a film from the incredibly detestable visionary director of the "Rush Hour" trilogy, "After the Sunset" and a segment from "Movie 43." As it turns out, though, "Hercules" not only bounds over the previously set bar but easily stands on its own right as surprisingly solid B-movie entertainment, a sort of sword-and-sandals variation of the John Wayne classic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" that cleverly hints at subverting and deconstructing its titular legend and the process of mythmaking.

It's also a movie in which The Rock throws a horse.

Sure, there are a few interesting ideas about the demigod's origins, but its pleasantly goofy B-movie core is watching The Rock – sorry, Dwayne Johnson – participate in the horse shot put and bash various animals and enemies with a chintzy-looking wooden club seemingly pulled from a different legend, namely those of the Hidden Temple. That's the main course, and "Hercules" serves it up with plenty of playful vigor.

That doesn't mean that "Hercules" is a great movie or even sometimes a particularly good one. It does, however, satisfyingly deliver almost exactly what you'd want from it, plus a flickering sign of thought or intelligence as a happy bonus.

Some viewers might be disappointed to know much of the big, mythical animal action featured in the admittedly not very good ad campaign only appears in a montage in the flashy first few minutes. Don't worry; there's still enough man vs. nature action to make sure no one associated with the movie will receive a Christmas card from PETA anytime this decade.

In that opening sequence, an under duress young storyteller named Ialous (Reece Ritchie, "The Lovely Bones") confidently but desperately spins the story of Hercules' origins and twelve labors, including slicing a giant hydra, clobbering a giant boar, taming – eh, murdering – a giant lion and even defanging two Hera-sent snake assassins as just a baby.

As it turns out, though, Ialous' stories are exactly that: stories. In real life, Johnson's Hercules is just a man – albeit still a ridiculously strong and capable man with Hulk-like arms – with an equally strong and capable team of specialists working behind-the-scenes, including an archer (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a blade thrower (Rufus Sewell), a prophet (Ian McShane), a crazed mute born in the horrors of war but tamed by Hercules (Aksel Hennie) and Ialous the storyteller from before.

Together, they tour the Greek countryside as mercenaries-for-hire, spreading Hercules' legend in order to score big paydays from kings and queens in need. Their latest job has them hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to help their makeshift army protect Thrace from the rampaging Rhesus. All is not what it would seem on this particular mission, however.

Screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos keep the plot amusingly twisty, having fun playing and tinkering with the myth of Hercules – and a few others, including an army of "centaurs" – along the way. It's a fairly clever way of retelling a familiar story with some new beats and ideas, while also bringing the demigod character down to human size (even if Johnson is still a physical freak).

The cast has even more fun. Sewell gets several snarky quips and retorts to liven up the drama, and McShane has an entertaining subplot about knowing the circumstances of his death but not the exact time. Throughout the film, he's left accepting a glorious death in battle with arms wide open, only to be constantly left disappointingly alive and well. Hennie is a nice secret weapon as well, even with no dialogue. Watching him gracelessly barrel into battle – and his own men (for training purposes) – is worth a laugh every time, but his eyes clearly carry his tragic past.

Oddly enough, Johnson is the only cast member not used to his full extent. Physically in the action scenes, sure (see: horse chucking), but his dead family backstory leaves him mostly reined into glum mode. I've always said Johnson is Schwarzenegger 2.0, an improved model with the same high charisma plus better acting chops. This role, however, doesn't get the most out of either quality.

On the battlefield, though, it's a different story. "Hercules" gives Johnson and the rest of his crew tons of great action beats, the ridiculous kind that are hilariously outrageous and awesome. Wagons are punted into enemy soldiers. Various CG animals and warriors are punched into oblivion. One guy gets statue-ed to death. Also: have I mentioned the horse throwing? Because that cannot be emphasized enough.

Ratner is still far from the best director. In fact, he proves here to be one of Hollywood's most impressively unimpressive options. He's not bad per se; he hits the big action moments with enjoyable aplomb and keeps the film moving (it's a blessedly swift summer blockbuster). But other than the big beats, much of the action, and the whole movie for that matter, is oddly impactless.

It's a weird mix of being extremely violent and extremely sanitized at the same time. A scene where McShane rides a chariot with long protruding blades on each side slicing apart an entire army is fun and entertaining, but its glaring bloodlessness creates plenty of cognitive dissonance. Still, at least on the battlefield, "Hercules" is a consistent mix of high highs and at worst diverting, competent lows.

For all its blissfully action-happy entertainment value, truth be told, "Hercules" still struggles to technically qualify as an actually good movie. The screenplay is entertaining but rather sloppy, struggling to build and clunkily tossing in flashbacks when need be – as well as a late third act villain barely around long enough to register beyond his impressive wig. That's easily forgiven, however, since the gleefully B-movie line "Unleash the wolves!" comes soon after.

The man behind the myth material is interesting, if surface-level and a bit confused; there seems to be confusion inside the script of how open Hercules is about his behind-the-scenes team and how much the public buys into his stories. Even the screenplay seems unsure if he's actually man or immortal.

Then there is the cheap production, which somehow looks – and sounds, thanks to Fernando Velazquez's video game-ready score – about $40 million less than its $100 million budget.

Still, while it's easy to nitpick "Hercules," it's even easier to be entertained by it. As late summer entertainment goes, watching various monstrous animals take their respective turns in The Rock's personal Whack-A-Mole for 98 minutes works quite nicely. Flaws and all, it's unpretentiously exactly the movie it should be.

Theaters and showtimes for Hercules Rating:


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