In the unlikely event you’re expecting to see a faithful recreation of “The Iliad” when you check out “Troy” this weekend, well…you really ought to know better. Originally billed as a “loose adaptation” of Homer’s epic poem, “Troy” strays far enough from the source material to give you fits if you really wanted to dwell on it, so don’t. No, the gods and goddesses aren’t major players – in fact, the only deity depicted is Achilles’ mother Thetis (Julie Christie), who – aside from a little prophesying – doesn’t really get her goddess on. And forget about the Trojan War taking ten years (“The Iliad” begins at the end of the siege) – in “Troy” it only takes a few weeks. Finally, if you try to view the film’s ending in the context of the original verse, your head might very well explode, and nobody wants that. Instead, approach “Troy” for what it is: the latest entry in the sand-and-sandals category, albeit one that features some of antiquity’s most famous characters and is also set against the backdrop of one of the most celebrated conflicts in ancient history.
You know the story (or you should – read a book): impetuous Trojan prince Paris absconds with Helen, wife of Menelaus (the King of Sparta), with whom the Trojans have just made peace. Needless to say, détente between the two states is fleeting. Menelaus beseeches his brother, King Agamemnon, to raise the Greek army and attack Troy. Agamemnon agrees, and the fabled “thousand ships” set off across the Aegean to teach the Trojans a lesson. Accompanying the Greeks is legendary warrior Achilles and his band of Myrmidons. The Trojans are led by Paris’ brother Hector, son of King Priam and a formidable fighter in his own right.
So what is there to like about “Troy?” Quite a bit, actually. CGI technology has advanced to the point that a 50,000 man virtual army seems mostly realistic, and the massive walls of Troy and the citadels of Sparta are passable for the brief time they’re onscreen. The fight scenes are impressive, punctuated by a climactic duel between Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Hector (Eric Bana) that made me realize how long it’s been since I’ve seen a good swordfight. Director Wolfgang Petersen also (mostly) manages to avoid the recent directorial obsession with shooting frenetic battlefield scenes that are difficult to follow.
Overall, the acting is above par. Highest marks go to Bana, whose Hector is the moral lynchpin of the film, never mind the Pitt-centered marketing. Brian Cox devours scenery admirably as the warmongering Agamemnon, while Peter O’Toole is no less convincing playing the beleaguered Priam. Orlando Bloom also gets decent marks for his portrayal of Paris. He comes across as an immature punk, which is kind of the point of the character, though the young prince gets a rapid education at the hands of Menelaus.
Unfortunately, the weakest acting (aside from Diane Kruger, whose scenes with Bloom play like something out of a Bronze Age “Days of our Lives”) comes from the top-billed Pitt. Far from “singing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,” as Homer once encouraged us, Petersen rarely has Pitt express anything more than stolid arrogance (an emotion that Pitt admittedly projects rather well). Sure, he yells for Hector to come down and fight, but this is a brief departure from two and a half hours of petulant glowering. Pitt looks the part, all pecs and biceps and brilliantine locks, and put up against any other cast he might hold his own, but not here. We’re told over and over how important Achilles is to the Greek cause and what a magnificent warrior he is (“He was born to end lives,” as Nestor so quaintly puts it), but Pitt falls short in conveying this, and in his one scene with Peter O’Toole, he’s hopelessly outclassed.
Clocking in at 2:43, “Troy” at times threatens to bog down, especially during the first half of the film. Scenes with Paris and Helen agonizing over their decision and the numerous pissing contests between Achilles and Agamemnon grow tiresome, so when the action finally kicks in, you should be more than ready. This is the bane of all such “epic” movies: too little backstory and the film runs the risk of being labeled hack-and-slash; too much and people complain that it’s overly “talky.” Petersen tries to strike a balance between swordplay and speeches, but too much of the latter is either painfully contrived (Helen’s “I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of tomorrow”) or forced and simplistic (anything out of Achilles’ mouth). Petersen would’ve been better off leaving the oration to Cox, O’Toole, and Bana while letting Achilles sulk in his tent with his slave girl – a sub-plot that adds little to the film except to offer a few more shots of Pitt’s bare a*s.
“Troy” is worth seeing for the fight scenes, for Bana’s understated Hector, for Sean Bean as the pragmatic and crafty Odysseus, and for the spectacle of the Greek army laying siege to the mightiest city of the ancient world. These aspects are almost, but not quite, enough to make one ignore the superficial script, melodramatic pacing, and uninspiring soundtrack (I think it’s time to retire the Middle Eastern ululations from our historical epics). “Troy” isn’t a bad film, simply an unspectacular one, which might be a more damaging statement.
But hey, Petersen leaves the door wide open to the possibility of an “Aeneid” sequel, so who knows?
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