Hercules is an engagingly preposterous film. Its overriding philosophy is perfectly expressed by Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), one of the big man’s acolytes, when he shouts out at no-one in particular: “don’t just stand there, kill someone.”
Most sword and sandal epics have occasional battle scenes interspersed with long periods in which the characters gossip, carouse, have love affairs and plot against each other. Hercules reverses the formula.
Almost the entire film is taken up with fighting. Ratner allows only the briefest time outs between battles to explain what exactly is being fought over.
Hercules himself (played in monolithic fashion by a very muscular Dwayne Johnson) looks disconcertingly like Davy Crockett in the early scenes in which he wears a hat made out of a lion’s head.
Ratner tantalises us by refusing to let us know whether Hercules is a god (“the son of Zeus..the Zeus!”) or simply a very buffed up man in high quality armour.
In a wonderfully clunky flash back sequence, we learn that he only ever wanted to be a “good husband and father” but that his wife and kids died in suspicious circumstances in the court of King Eursytheus.
(Joseph Fiennes plays the king in a purring way that rekindles memories of Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo.) Hercules has therefore turned mercenary. Lord Cotys (John Hurt) offers him his weight in gold and more to defeat the rebel army led by Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann.)
There is a self-mocking quality to much of the dialogue. “If only your manhood was as long as your tongue,” one warrior is taunted by a woman. “What a load of crap,” someone exclaims after hearing the legend of Hercules and his 12 tasks. The performances all appear to be tongue in cheek.
Ian McShane is very funny as Amphiaraus, one of Hercules’ followers who has the gift of second sight and yet never quite knows what is going to happen next.
Peter Mullan scowls and growls to fine effect as John Hurt’s bad tempered General, Sitacles. Hurt brings a Quentin Crisp-like mischief to his role as the Machiavellian leader of the Thracians.
The battle scenes are staged with commendable vigour. Ratner throws in Ben-Hur like chariot chases and plentiful moments in which Hercules clubs his various enemies to death, fights off fiery animals by ripping open their jaws or knocks down statues of Hera.
The big man even gets to make an Agincourt-style speech and to show his mastery of war craft. There is some nifty archery by the Amazonian Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal).
The action is underpinned by plenty of martial music, heavy on the drum rolls. One secret Ratner refuses to divulge is whether this is a full-on spoof or whether he is actually making the film in deadly earnest.
Whatever the case, it’s all good, idiotic matinee entertainment.
Brett Ratner, 90 mins, starring: Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes