By Bruce DeMara
Special to the Advocate
Three stars (out of four)
If you’re feeling the summer box office is lacking muscle, try Hercules, a surprisingly satisfying blend of action, adventure and swift plotting.
It’s surprising in part because the film’s distributors, Paramount and MGM Pictures, held the only press screening the night before the movie opened in theatres, making it virtually impossible to get critics’ reviews into their traditional spot in Friday newspapers.
That doesn’t usually augur well. Hercules is, happily, an exception to the rule.
Directed by Brett Ratner, best known for the trilogy of Rush Hour films as well as X-Men: The Last Stand, the film offers both a sense of intimacy in its portrayal of Hercules and his small band of mercenaries as well as a sense of grandiosity with its impressive battle scenes and sets.
The story opens with a quick series of flashbacks as Hercules works through a trio of his legendary 12 labours (the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar) to appease the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus, his alleged father.
In the present, Hercules is commissioned by Lord Cotys to rescue Thrace from a marauding army led by Rhesus, purported to be a centaur. This being ancient Greece, separating myth from reality is a rather tricky proposition.
Actually, this is an integral part of the script. Is Hercules a demi-god or just a regular flesh-and-blood guy with massive strength (and the body to prove it)? It’s an intriguing idea and one that adds to the richness of the story. When Hercules’ nephew Iolaus volubly recounts some of his epic adventures, the big guy is inclined to roll his eyes and smile.
Ratner has assembled an impressive cast, starting with Dwayne Johnson as Hercules, an actor with the on-screen charisma to match his impressive physique.
There’s also Ian McShane for semi-comic relief as Amphiaraus, an augur (or seer) who gets precious few tantalizing hints from the gods to see the future.
Toss in Rufus Sewell as the Spartan Autolycus, Ingrid Bolso Berdal as the archer Atalanta, Aksel Hennie as the mute but fierce Tydeus, and you’ve got a very appealing company of companions. John Hurt as Cotys and Joseph Fiennes as the rather prissy King Eurystheus simply add to the depth of an already strong cast.
The script is far more intricate than expected, in a good way, with a few unexpected twists and a back story about our main hero and a tragic loss that engages our interest.
Care and attention have clearly been paid to the costumes and the sets in terms of authenticity, and director of photography Dante Spinotti delivers some nice panoramic views of rugged Hungarian landscapes subbing for northern Greece.
The film looks great in IMAX and it’s a pleasure to report that the 3D effects are both impressive and mesh well with the action-filled story.
The battle scenes are impressively choreographed and, while there is a fair degree of violence, it never feels gratuitous.
The climactic scene, when our hero bellows “I am Hercules!” is actually rather stirring.
Looking for a rousing summer escape? Hercules is the ticket.
Bruce DeMara is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.