Was anyone waiting for yet another movie incarnation of the tale of Hercules, especially given that Renny Harlin's poorly reviewed sub-spectacle "The Legend of Hercules" was unleashed in theaters a mere six months ago? The quick answer: probably not.
That said, the mythically powerful demigod is back on the big screen in the simply titled "Hercules" and the results are canny, fast-paced, and, for what the film attempts to accomplish, enjoyable.
If at first blush it feels as if casting Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the mighty son of Zeus was more inevitable than inspired, the truth is the part fits the big guy like a glove. Without putting too fine a point on it, Hercules is Johnson's King Lear or Willy Loman; an iconic, aspirational role that's been long-simmering in his wheelhouse.
And if it's not exactly an acting stretch for the ex-wrestler, Johnson brings a deft physical urgency and larger-than-life nobility to this ancient superhero. He takes the part seriously, no question. But there's also a playful quality to his performance that mitigates the kind of ponderousness often associated with these roles.
The script by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the graphic novel "Hercules: the Thracian Wars" by Steve Moore, deconstructs some of the character's mythic history, primarily: Is he really the spawn of Zeus or is that just a bunch of BC baloney? And if he is a mere mortal — albeit one with melon-sized biceps and the power to destroy a lion with his bare hands — does it matter as long as he delivers the goods?
Hercules' reimagining here also includes a past haunted by the mysterious death of his wife and children three years earlier. The trauma has turned the Greek legend, he of the famed "12 Labors," into a rootless mercenary, exchanging his fighting skills for sacks of gold. His latest job involves helping the benevolent Lord Cotys (John Hurt) and his fetching daughter, Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) end a brutal civil war in the land of Thrace, a task that will, of course, prove easier said than done.
Though he leads the charge, Hercules is aided immeasurably by a devoted circle of fearless fighters who provide not only physical and moral support but nice doses of wry humanity. They include aging soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), childhood friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Amazonian warrior Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), the feral Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and Hercules' nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), a charming storyteller and nascent soldier.
Director Brett Ratner keeps a firm grip on the film's formidable, CGI-enhanced, epic action sequences as well as its few quieter moments, smartly keeping things moving apace with propulsive skill. At a compact 90 minutes plus end credits, there's no time for dawdling, yet the story — or at least this particular chapter of it — feels satisfyingly complete.
The movie is also visually compelling thanks to veteran cinematographer and frequent Ratner collaborator Dante Spinotti's ("X-Men: The Last Stand," "Red Dragon") vital lensing, Jean-Vincent Puzos' vivid production design, the efforts of VFX supervisor John Bruno, and astute editing by Mark Helfrich and Julia Wong (the pair's cutting of a late-breaking scene involving a potential beheading and death-defying rescue is bravura work).
And for those who want their Hercules to loom even larger, the film's Imax 3-D presentation, where available, is crisp and gorgeous, if not entirely essential.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: In general release