98 minutes/opens tomorrow/**1/2
The story: Hercules (Dwayne Johnson), known throughout ancient Greece as the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, is a rootless mercenary following a horrific incident at home, selling his superhuman strength and skills as a warrior to the highest bidder. His band of adventurers includes the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) and the vagabond Autolycus (Rufus Sewell). The Thracian Lord Cotys (John Hurt) hires them to rid his land of invaders.
Hollywood loves Hercules because he is the original action superhero, blessed with name recognition around the world, with the added advantage of his likeness being royalty-free - take that, Marvel and DC.
This year alone has seen two Hercules movies, with the first, The Legend Of Hercules, starring Kellan Lutz, released in January.
The only fly in the ointment of Hollywood's contentment is that while everyone knows he has to flex his muscles and fight something, no one can quite make out what he fights, and for what reason.
A modern superhero worthy of summer blockbuster status needs a moral impetus.
Batman is psychologically tortured; Superman fights for the American way. This attempt, based on a graphic novel by Steve Moore, spins the Hercules myth into a distinctly Batman-like direction.
Johnson, displaying a hugely pumped-up physique, is haunted by inner demons.
His family has been slaughtered under circumstances which seem to indicate that he might be guilty of the deed. The pain has driven him far from his home and family, and the story here picks up the events some years after his departure.
He has surrounded himself with not one but five Robins, each with his or her own special power.
Moore's story, as interpreted by director Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand, 2006; Rush Hour 3, 2007), tries to give depth and soul to the hero with the addition of the band.
The vagabond group is his second family. They might say they fight for gold but they actually fight for one another.
There is an added twist. The vaunted demigod might actually be completely mortal and his semi- divine status might just be an ancient form of theatricality intended to scare enemies.
Again, the Batman echoes are present. The action sequences are finely staged and well paced, even if the story, under Ratner's hand, grounds itself in realism. No magic exists in this realm. This is the sword-and-sorcery genre, minus the sorcery.
The realistic tone is handled well, but Johnson appears miscast. He is a nice guy and is fine in parts that employ his humour but here, the brooding calls for better acting chops.
And after the umpteenth flashback to his haunted past, the audience might hanker for a more old- fashioned, less angst-ridden hero.