Movie Review: ‘Hercules’ best when flexing a sense of humor

He-man headgear: Dwayne Jonson in
He-man headgear: Dwayne Jonson in "Hercules."

Hercules
★★ 1/2

While it eventually turns out to be as dumb as expected, along the way “Hercules” is smarter and funnier than you might imagine.

It’s certainly a lot more entertaining than the beefily bland “Legend of Hercules,” starring “Twilight” saga second stringer Kellan Lutz, that came and went almost simultaneously early this year. Though that wasn’t an especially tough act to follow.

The current Hercules is played by Dwayne “Don’t Call Me The Rock” Johnson and he’s an improvement in every way. The former pro wrestler more than looks the part, of course, (the man’s musculature is practically a living special effect), but he’s also a much better actor than he’s typically given credit for. And he’s long since proven his facility with comedy (“Pain and Gain,” “Be Cool,” even “Tooth Fairy”), even when he’s more or less the straight man, as he is here.

There’s also a clever idea built into this “Hercules,” questioning the reality of his demi-god status.

Though we’re treated to a reprise of his legendary feats of heroism in the opening scenes, director Brett Ratner (the “Rush Hour” trilogy) soon lets us know that the son-of-Zeus story is merely a public relations tactic meant to up his price as a mercenary. It works, as we see when he’s offered his considerable weight in gold to help the Thracian Lord Cotys (John Hurt) fend off a barbarous warlord with an army of centaurs and demons. Though all may not be as it seems. . .

Everything works nicely on the action side. Hercules has a band of five brothers in arms (and one Amazonian sister), each of whom has a particular combat specialty and the big man himself swings a very mean, extra-large fang-tipped club, knocking enemies dozens of yard in all directions.

It’s the humor, though, that makes “Hercules” fun to watch, beginning with the opening monologue introducing him as the offspring of Zeus (“that’s the Zeus”). The always-welcome Ian McShane is helpful in that regard as one of Hercules’s band, a seemingly permanently half-stoned mystic who’s always mistakenly predicting his own death. “If you’re going to use those herbs, Amphiaraus, at least share,” one of the others suggests.

Or you might be tempted to snicker a bit, for example, at the lion-head helmet he wears into battle, since it looks a bit like one of those cute animal hoodies little girls wear.

Unfortunately, “Hercules” has to get down to the business of fulfilling its genre requirements eventually and it’s at that point, after a pretty ridiculously contrived double-cross, that interest starts to wane.

It’s obvious from the beginning, of course, that Hercules will at some point have to dig deep and uncover the truth within the legend so everyone can go home feeling inspired. But it’s so much more fun to go along with the irreverent vibe of the first hour or so.

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