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By Admin | May 17, 2004

Wolfgang Petersen’s popcorn epic doesn’t fail exactly. It just takes on too much. Modern man is at something of a disadvantage-even aided by his trusty muse, the computer-when presuming to bring the stuff of gods, myths and
timeless sacred texts to the big screen. This is a limitation Mel Gibson demonstrated recently in the course of adapting the greatest story ever told into a glorified snuff film.

Petersen’s intentions are better than Gibson’s. His movie is too. Still, he’s not quite up to the task of turning Homer into mass entertainment. Based on The Iliad, the chronicle of the Trojan War the bard composed in the 8th Century BC, “Troy” impresses less as monumental filmmaking than as the sort of thing you might get if Richard III were made into a blood-spurting, saber-clanging game by Nintendo.

A primary bugaboo is the unfortunate fact that the director and screenwriter (David Benioff) have attempted to tell a mythic tale of heroes as though it were an historical account and have imbued main players with
psychological circuitry their creators never meant them to possess. As the film’s central figure, Achilles, Brad Pitt misfires. The way Homer conceived of the character he was the greatest warrior who ever lived, a mortal who fought like a god. As retooled by Troy’s creators, though, he’s a brooding side of beef reluctant to lend his sword to a king or cause which fails to meet with his approval. As I watched him vacillate between ninja and navel gazer, I found myself wondering how common a problem mood swings were 3000 years ago.

In the role of Agamemnon, Brian Cox makes up for what he lacks in glistening abs with a portrayal far more in the spirit of the source material. He’s a big, fat, greedy bastard insatiable in his craving for dominion. He couldn’t be more tickled when Paris (Orlando Bloom), prince of Troy, undermines a peacekeeping visit to Sparta by taking the king’s wife with him when he leaves. The king just happens to be his brother and, when the guy proposes the Greeks go to war with Troy as payback, the power-mad Agamemnon can’t get those thousand ships
in the water fast enough.

Which brings us to the battles. They absorb most of the picture’s $200 million budget and account for the lion’s share of its entertainment value (although the two massive forces really face off properly in only two sequences). Their effectiveness has less to do with the conflicts having been staged dramatically than with the fact that so much which takes place between them is drippy and dull. In scene after scene, Pitt drones on about how important it is to him that future generations remember his name. I kept expecting him to throw off his armor and break into the theme from “Fame.”
The fight scenes are rousing in places. Interestingly, though, they work best when the action’s up close and mano a mano, as when Achilles takes the Trojan beach almost singlehandedly. The further back Petersen pulls and the harder he tries to digitally dazzle, the less his picture impresses. Let’s face it: Pretty much everyone understands how CGIs work by now so the illusion of hundreds of boats or thousands of soldiers no longer wows the way it did when George Lucas first launched a thousand spaceships for Star Wars’ cosmic dogfights back in 1977. There’s a word for repetition of an image over and over again: Wallpaper.
Remember 1981’s awful “Clash of the Titans”, one of the last movies Laurence Olivier made? I didn’t think so. Anyway, a lot of the dialogue in “Troy” is every bit as corny. Characters hokily invoke the gods in every other sentence while appearing only marginally connected to them. Remember 1968’s “The Lion
in Winter”? Who could forget Peter O’Toole’s grand performance as England’s almost over the hill Henry II? The actor does the even older king thing here in the role of Priam, the Trojan ruler who has made it to very old age without seeing the walls of his fortress city penetrated. Everything that needs to be said concerning the virtue of golden age vs. new age Hollywood is summed up in a single scene between the king under siege and the superstar headlining the attack on him. Surprising Achilles in his tent one night, Priam requests the return of
the body of a son Achilles has defeated in combat. O’Toole does more to bring the production to life using only his ragged voice, lined face and innate style than Petersen’s FX crew can manage with all the software money can buy.

Have I mentioned that Paris and Helen (Diane Kruger), whose lust sets the saga’s cataclysmic events in motion, have all the charisma of “The Bachelorette”‘s Ryan and Trista?

To be fair, “Troy” is perhaps a better stab at Homer than one had any reason to expect from the director of “Outbreak” and “Air Force One”. A few more moments like the one between Pitt and O’Toole and a little less stilted gab about gods and glory and Petersen might have had himself a reasonably satisfying sword and sandal extravaganza. As it is, he doesn’t just fall short of The Iliad. He makes you want to run out and rent Gladiator.

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