Most of the time when studios keep movies away from critics, they’re right, but with “Hercules,” whose screenings gave press only a 60-minute head start on the general public, the reviews rolling in on Friday aren’t the steaming pile of pans one might have expected; they’re better even than the first wave from the UK. At the Dissolve, Keith Phipps writes that “this surprisingly entertaining film brings out the best of everyone,” while Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri says: “It has a playful heart and spirited cast, and little else, but that turns out to be (mostly) enough.”
Roger Ebert said that a good movie should be more entertaining than having dinner with the cast, and with “Hercules,” that’s a tall order: I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I’d trade those 98 minutes for a night of boozing with Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt and Ian McShane in a Thracian minute. What makes “Hercules” a good deal of fun, if not precisely “good,” is the way that camaraderie carries over onto the screen. Johnson is, as Tim Grierson writes in his Deadpsin review, is somewhat hamstrung in the title role, despite the fact that the movie is more interested in undermining Hercules’ mythic stature rather than puffing it up. (The central conceit is that the legends are just that, and the real Hercules is a crafty mercenary smart enough to let the tales of his prowess raise his asking price.) But Hurt, as the king of a city-state who engages Hercules and his band to defend them, McShane, as an eccentric seer, and Rufus Sewell as Hercules’ snarky sidekick, rip into their roles with gusto and wit. Sewell, who never misses an opportunity to deflate the gravity of a moment, is to the sword and sandal genre as “Airplane!’s” Steven Stucker is to the disaster movie.
It’s perplexing to use the word “wit” in relation to a Brett Ratner movie and not follow it with the suffix “-less,” and there are moments when the frat-boy auteur’s characteristic ham-handedness is in full effect. But for the most part, “Hercules” is more bawdy than crass, commendably undermining the pomposity of “Gladiator” and the glossy fascism of the “300” movies. The battle scenes, which stress Hercules’ skill as a tactician more than his brute strength, are cogently choreographed and smartly edited — far more so than in the forthcoming superhero movie I saw immediately beforehand.
“Hercules'” de- and re-mythologizing plays like an ancient Greek version of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and while it’s nowhere near as crafty as John Ford’s seminal Western, it manages to humanize the legendary half-God without simply dragging him down to earth. It’s a movie of heightened style — late in the game, a character cries “Unleash the wolves!” in a manner evoking “the Simpsons'” Montgomery Burns — but not as airlessly slick as some of Ratner’s more polished turds. It would be silly to make great claims for “Hercules,” and counter to its anti-legendary spirit, but it’s substantially better than the studio’s decision to play Hot Potato with critics would lead you to believe.