Can do no worse than what we got in January. Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Academy Award nominee John Hurt star in Hercules.

HerculesCast of Characters:
Hercules – Dwayne Johnson
Amphiaraus – Ian McShane
Autolycus – Rufus Sewell
Tydeus – Aksel Hennie
Sitacles – Peter Mullan
Atalanta – Ingrid Bolso Berdal
Iolaus – Reece Ritchie
King Eurystheus – Joseph Fiennes
Ergenia – Rebecca Ferguson
Megara – Irina Shayk
King Cotys – John Hurt

Director – Brett Ratner
Screenplay – Ryan J. Condal & Evan Spiliotopoulos
Based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore & Admira Wijaya
Producer – Brett Ratner, Barry Levine & Beau Flynn
Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity

Born the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and the mortal Alcmene, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is revered as a savior to all of Greece after completing his legendary labors. After his wife Megara (Irina Shayk) and their children are murdered, of which he’s alleged to be responsible for, Hercules teams up with a band of loyal mercenaries – Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) – who sell their services in return for gold.

With an enemy threat that could lead to civil war approaching the people of Thrace, King Cotys (John Hurt) and his daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) reach out to Hercules for help.

Just like last year, when we got two White House terrorism films (Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down), 2014 has two Hercules films, this one and that steaming dog turd back in January that was also known as The Legend of Hercules, a film so bad it made Schwarzenegger’s Hercules in New York look like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It might seem like a joke to say this film could just be Dwayne Johnson taking a dump for 90 minutes and still be better, but in all honesty, compared to Kellan Lutz’s stab at the son of Zeus, this film had no pressure on it whatsoever. Yes, the dialogue is clunky at times, and 300, this is not, but Hercules ends up being a surprisingly entertaining.

Writers Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, adapting from Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya’s graphic novel, take some liberties with the Herculean legend that I can’t quite divulge without giving away spoilers. One of the non-spoiler liberties, and the big theme running throughout the film, is the question they pose: What if Hercules isn’t half-god, but just a heroic figure that Greece looks up to as one? If the Mount Olympus gods do exist, we still never see them in this film. Even the twelve labors of Hercules, which do pop up at the beginning, contain a twist of their own.

The big surprise here is director Brett Ratner. I’m not a Ratner hater, but I’m not quite a fan either. Rush Hour and its first sequel were fun, and Red Dragon – a huge departure for Ratner – is easily his best film (getting the Oscar winning screenwriter for The Silence of the Lambs and that caliber of a cast to back you up helps), but he also did the bloated, “he’s out of his element” X-Men: The Last Stand, the bland After the Sunset, the horrible Rush Hour 3 and the dumb Tower Heist. When I heard he was taking another departure into the sword and sandal genre, I kinda laughed to myself. I gotta give him credit, though, ’cause this is an entertaining B-movie that delivers no more and no less than what it promises. At times, Ratner’s contemporary style of humor doesn’t fit the setting, and while the film never lags, the scenes off the battlefield aren’t as compelling as they are on. That said, the production design is amazing and when it does hit the battlefield, Ratner – despite occasionally falling back on the frenetic editing that action films tend to do these days – constructs some thrilling battle sequences.

Obviously, the reason people will go to see this is ’cause of Dwayne Johnson, who over the years has become the go-to action star. Johnson’s still getting there as an actor (his performance in Snitch was a good stepping stone), but there’s no denying his magnetic presence, which just on its own is enough to carry an action film such as this. There’s a reason Schwarzenegger had that blink and you’ll miss him cameo pass-by in The Rundown. Johnson’s build and charisma is why he’s this era’s Schwarzenegger, and if there’s any advantage he has over Arnold, it’s that he has the potential to be a better actor. Here, Johnson performs with enough conviction, yet also enough self-awareness to not take the project too seriously.

Johnson’s certainly the name that will drive butts into the seats, but backing him up is quite an impressive lineup of veteran talent including Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt. At the very least, these men are able to muster up enough Shakespearean style gravitas to make the hokey dialogue sound passable. McShane is dependably droll as Hercules’s soothsayer who keeps predicting his own death only to survive in uncanny ways (it’s a recurring gag that works, mostly ’cause Ratner wisely doesn’t overuse it). John Hurt and Joseph Fiennes add a dash of sophistication to their roles, and Norwegian actress Ingrid Bolso Berdal wields a mean bow that could give Katniss and Legolas a run for their money.

Hercules packs in the score, sets and action needed for a sword and sandals flick, and is, more importantly, knowingly cheesy enough to be entertaining and avoid coming off unintentionally funny. Despite some jokes that don’t work, director Brett Ratner is mostly able to find a balance between the two, and at just a little over 90 minutes, keeps things moving at a nicely brisk pace. Bottom line, though – this is Dwayne Johnson’s film, and he once again shows why he’s currently the most charming and charismatic action star out there right now. Don’t expect Gladiator, and you’ll be fine.

I give Hercules a B- (★★★).

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