The latest swords & sandal movie featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hit theaters this weekend with Hercules, based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars. The film wasn’t screened for critics, which usually is a bad sign, but sometimes, the featured films turn out better than expected. How did things turn out for Hercules?

Cast & Crew

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Hercules
Ian McShane as Amphiaraus
John Hurt as Lord Cotys
Rufus Sewell as Autolycus
Aksel Hennie as Tydeus
Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as Atalanta
Reece Ritchie as Iolaus
Tobias Santelmann as Rheseus

Written by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos
Based on the comic Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore
Directed by Brett Ratner

The Premise

Hercules and his band of companions – Amphiaraus the seer, Autolycus the rogue, Tydeus the man-beast, Atalanta the Amazon, and Iolaus the storyteller – are hired by Lord Cotys of Thrace to help his army defeat a rampaging warlord who is menacing his people, Rheseus. However, with much of the Thracian army defeated, Hercules must train what remains of the Thracian army (a rag-tag group of refugees and conscripts) into a force that can protect the kingdom.

High Points

This is a movie that doesn’t feel like it insults my intelligence. This isn’t to say the film doesn’t use cliches, or have particular points that, in retrospect, I’d consider dumb. However, when the film puts forward the idea that Herc isn’t actually a demigod, but just an ordinary man, albeit a very strong man, it sticks with it, makes it work, and when they decide to put some form of question on this point, they do so subtly.

Additionally, Dwayne Johnson is the best actor to play Hercules on screen. He has the visible physical strength that Steve Reeves and Lou Ferrigno had/have, but with more charisma and acting breadth than Kevin Sorbo did. Johnson has such screen presence that you buy that all these people would be following him not because he’s where the money is, but because they think of him as part of their surrogate family. The fact that the supporting cast has such great charisma with Johnson helps a lot too.

Low Points

The film’s second big reveal – that the king of Athens drugged Hercules’ wine and killed his family with his trained wolfhounds, comes out of nowhere, with no clues suggesting that it’s coming. The first twist has a enough clever and well written foreshadowing that I didn’t see the twist coming in the theater, but I could see the clues after replaying the film in my head. Considering this film leaves space open for a sequel, I’d have rather that second plot thread used as the focus for a sequel.

The Scores

Originality: There have been a lot of films made on the Hercules myths. This film’s take on it feels the most unique. Again, there are plot elements that have been taken from other films (like the Seven Samurai), but these concepts are ones that are re-used because they work. 4/6

Story: This film’s story isn’t particularly deep, but it is cleverly written. 4/6.

Effects: The effects we get in this film are generally not flashy. We have a few CGI critters in the listeners-minds-eye view sequences where some of the Twelve Labors are described, but the majority of the effects in the film are for crowd shots, digital matte paintings, and for some arrows and other projectiles. The less flashy scenes are really subtly done, and play into how the story is more grounded in reality. 4/6

Production: The sets and costumes are very well designed, as are the sound effects. My particularly favorite bit I like is the burn makeup on Aksel Henne’s face, which does a lot to sell his character’s background. 4/6

Acting: This is certainly the best acting performance of Dwayne Johnson’s career, in terms of the emotional range he displays. He and the other members of the band have tremendous chemistry, such that I’d like to see them in a movie together again. 5/6

Emotional Response: This is a very fun movie. I get the impression that the cast really enjoyed making this movie together, and that rapport carries over to the tone of the movie itself. 5/6

Overall: This is a solidly put together swords & sandal film, and probably one of the best films of the genre. Is it going to down as one of the greatest films in the history of cinema? No. Is this a movie that is worth checking out on a matinee showing while you waiting for Guardians of the Galaxy to come out next week? Absolutely. 5/6

In total, Hercules (2014) gets 31 out of 42.