Hercules, the latest offering from oft internet whipping boy Brett “I nearly killed the X-Men franchise” Ratner, is actually the third film (behind Hercules Reborn and The Legend of Hercules, because Hollywood) about the mythological demigod to hit screens in 2014. And out of the three offerings, by tackling those mythological aspects in a very novel way, it ends up hitting hardest – although not quite as clean a knockout as I had hoped for.

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The bulk of the metaphorical and physical hitting comes at the hands of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who surely by this stage of his ever larger physique and box office presence should just upgrade his nickname to “The Mountain Range”. With arms like a procession of old Volkswagens and his WWE-bred pantomiming, he’s the perfect pick to play a mythological hero, but in trying to ground the character and make him more tragic, Johnson’s legendary, franchise reinvigorating charisma ends up severely muted. This is a man who goes into battle wearing a lion’s head as a hat, yet has a mortician’s seriousness about him that robs the character of any real sense of fun.

So it falls to his merry band of sidekicks to do most of the lighthearted lifting, with Rufus Sewell’s knife-slinger Autolycus and Ian McShane’s fatalistic seer Amphiaraus providing the bulk of the jokey repartee, with a one-liner never far away. Rounding out Herc’s Goof Troop is Headhunters star Aksel Hennie’s mute berserker ball of rage Tydeus, Nicole Kidman-lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s amazonian warrior Atalanta, and Reece Ritchie as Hercules’ nephew Iolaus.

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And it’s Iolaus, despite boasting the martial prowess of a wet poodle, that actually has the most important job in the group. See despite the legends, it turns out that Hercules is not actually the son of Zeus. What he is, is a really good mercenary warrior with an even better marketing campaign and a bunch of sneaky friends who can assist him from the shadows, allowing this mortal to seemingly accomplish immortal feats. Iolaus’ silver tongue pumps up these feats – and Herc’s rep – to mythical proportions, putting fear into his prospective enemies, but more importantly, allowing him to charge clients even more for his mercenary services.

And the latest man to promise Hercules his considerable weight in gold is a slumming John Hurt as King Cotys, whose kingdom of Thrace is in a spot of bother thanks to a bloody civil war with an army apparently boasting centaurs in it ranks (which puts doubts to the claims that all the fantastical elements are just made up), that’s left nothing but a bunch of clumsy farmers to defend the borders. Cotys wants Hercules to train these motley citizens into a fit fighting force so that they can end the strife gripping their lands, but much like the “demigod’s” reputation, things are not quite what they seem. Throw in Joseph Fiennes’ goldilocked King Eurystheus and his history with our hero, and Cotys’ damsel in distress daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) and you have a script that may be predictable in the broad strokes – especially the film’s goofy, far too easy a climax – but which offers more than enough diversion to keep you suitably entertained.

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And that’s really the story of this film. Ratner’s staging of several big battle sequences may not get much points for inventiveness, but they do boast a solid efficacy to them, i.e. people of various well-made costume persuasions on competently designed sets getting punched/stabbed/clubbed real good. And more often than not, they get punched/stabbed/clubbed in some surprisingly impressive 3D.

But as much as Ratner lives up to his assembly line director rep, producing the goods as promised but without any major individual flair, here he occasionally seems to find a spark of inspired personality. One scene in particular ramps up the emotion and tension so successfully that I had to check the credits again to make sure he hadn’t been playing director-tag-team with somebody else. There’s also another memorable action beat involving Hercules being viciously savaged by a trio of fanged beasts that shows off a raw brutality that will have you flinching in your seats. The impact of this scene does get undone immediately thereafter though when Hercules appears no less for wear than if he had been lightly gummed by an incontinent old man sans dentures.

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But even with script foibles like that, this is exactly the type of Hercules movie you would expect from Ratner and Johnson. Technically well crafted visuals, heroes making their contracted wisecrack quotas and competent enough set pieces that won’t strain that PG-13 rating much. With a refreshing revisionist take on the mythology and all the satisfyingly brawny action on display, this should be enough of a guilt-free way to spend 100 minutes, even if the only muscles getting really worked here are The Rock’s and seldom the ones found in your heart or head.

Hercules (3D) opens in theatres this Friday, August 8, 2014.

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Last Updated: August 7, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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