The myth of Hercules is one of those fantastic jellybeans of world literature, a nasty, brutish, savage story full of monsters and gods and heroes, a rival to any of the cracking yarns from the Bible but without any hint of moral nourishment to weigh it down. In Greek tradition, the king of the gods, Zeus, had all the marital integrity of your average goat, fathering a slew of demigod tots with various human hotties. Hercules, legend tells, showed his first godly pluck when he strangled two asps that Zeus’ wife, Hera, sent to assassinate him in the cradle. After that he was basically the Bo Jackson of his day: stronger, faster, badder than every beast or task thrown at him.
That would’ve made a sweet movie, no doubt, but surprisingly, refreshingly, Brett Ratner’s “Hercules” picks up after the legend has grown and Hercules’s slayings of, for instance, the Nemean lion (with its unpierceable hide) and the Erymanthian boar (a rampaging monster of tanklike stature) have passed from rumor to lore. His reputation, it turns out, is the result of a concerted marketing push on the part of Hercules and his roving posse of mercenaries. While they travel and fight as a group, they’re invested in propigating and even propping up the impression that their admittedly formidable leader (Dwayne Johnson, looking grunge-band shaggy) is truly the son of Zeus, rocking these missions solo. It’s intimidating, after all, and when you’re in the business of doing dirty work for hire, anything to justify the price is likely to stick.
This warped approach allows “Hercules” to take on a couple of nifty features that keep it from melting into the sort of self-important inadvertent campiness that can torpedo a good time at the movies. (Au contraire: “Hercules” is fully aware of its campiness.) The first is, the dialogue among the mercenaries — Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie — deflates most of the schlocky high concept of gods and warriors chasing noble deeds. They’re vulgar, occasionally funny sellswords. This fits because their fearless leader is played by a former pro wrestler perhaps best known for his hyperactive eyebrows. In case the tone of this escapade escapes you, the bombastic brass-heavy score screams Saturday matinee. Pay enough attention and you’ll notice a couple of relatively subtle ribaldries signaling adults not to take this trip to the movies too seriously.
Whether or not he’s truly the son of Zeus, or just a great set of shoulders with an equally great backstory, Hercules and his cronies are on the make when a desperate king (John Hurt) pleads for help fending off a marauding army that may or may not be centaur-based. Our heroes help to whip this poor king’s farmers into fighting shape (and there is better-than-average battlefield warfare here with, yes, a strong dose of hokum) and then fall into a series of plot twists that don’t make a whole lot of sense; but oh, well, by this time what do you expect? For a movie named for a hero whose weapon of choice is a spiked club, this “Hercules” has enough nuance in its telling that it won’t really matter. Ratner knows this is bargain-concept cinema. Set the bar low enough and it’s amazing how good a below-average flick can seem.