Unlike the Romans, the Greeks have never been particularly well served by Hollywood, and the giant new epic “Troy” doesn’t do a whole lot to right the balance. Despite a sensationally attractive cast and an array of well-staged combat scenes presented on a vast scale, Wolfgang Petersen’s highly telescoped rendition of the Trojan War lurches ahead in fits and starts for much of its hefty running time, to OK effect. But at a reported budget of no less than $175 million and quite likely more, OK isn’t good enough, and Warner Bros. will have to hope that foreign biz will considerably outflank B.O. in the U.S., where prospects are strong initially but questionable after heavy competition hits in the weeks immediately after “Troy’s” May 14 opening.
Despite all the technological advances and know-how brought to bear on this loose adaptation of Homer’s “The Iliad,” “Troy” boasts almost precisely the same pros and cons as a standard-issue historical spectacle of the ’50s: great production values, spectacular battles and some fine actors in grand roles on the one hand; hokey dialogue, insipid romance and dull interstitial downtime between set-pieces on the other.
For all its great inherent drama and self-consciously larger-than-life characters, the Trojan War, a legendary event that may have been mostly invented by Homer and/or some oral poets preceding him and was as likely a strategic trade war as anything else, has not inspired anything resembling greatness on the bigscreen.
Robert Wise’s 1954 “Helen of Troy” has some secondary qualities but is fatally compromised by the English-dubbed performances of the pretty Euro leads. The 1961-62 period of sword-and-sandals mania saw the release of three low-budget Italian epics: Giorgio Ferroni’s “The Trojan War,” a Steve Reeves actioner with a creditable sense of historic mores beyond its atrocious dubbing, Marino Girolami’s “Achilles” and Giorgio Rivalta’s “War of the Trojans.” Then there was last year’s flavorless USA miniseries “Helen of Troy,” which concentrated on the title character.
By contrast, screenwriter David Benioff (“The 25th Hour”) has focused on Achilles, the greatest warrior in the known world around 1200 B.C., a mercenary fighter thought by many to be invincible. Rejecting the Homeric preoccupation with the gods, script emphasizes the warriors’ preoccupation with immortality as the primary motivation in their lives; the promise of knowing that their names will live forever spurs all behavior, including, in Achilles’ case, dying young in a war in which he has no personal stake.
“The Iliad” begins with the Greeks entering the 10th year of their stalemated siege of Troy, an impregnable walled city near the Dardanelles, on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey. Benioff compresses the entire conflict down to what would seem to be less than a month.
Triggering it all is a lusty affair between Helen, Queen of Sparta (Diane Kruger), and the equally lovely Paris (Orlando Bloom), a prince of Troy visiting the Greek kingdom with his older brother Hector (Eric Bana) in order to forge a peace pact.
When, on the voyage home, Paris reveals that he’s snuck Helen on board their ship, Hector knows this means war and demands to send her home. Pic doesn’t follow up on how Hector’s mind gets changed, but in the meantime, the cuckolded Spartan King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson, who’d make a great Viking if any Norse sagas join the current epics cycle) easily convinces his greedy, bloodthirsty brother, the Mycenaean King Agamemnon (an excitable Brian Cox), to join him in a vengeful war on Troy to get Helen back.
Despite Agamemnon’s long-standing feud with Achilles, who leads his own small band of soldiers, the latter finally joins his fellow Greeks after his goddess mother (Julie Christie in a one-scene cameo) assures him his name will live forever in the annals of war if he accepts his fate of an early death in the coming battle.
Thus motivated, Achilles sees to it that his ship is the first of the 1,000 to arrive on the sandy shores of Troy, and he leads his small force on a seemingly reckless but ultimately successful attempt to establish a beachheadbeneath the imposing walls of their enemy.
Behind the gates, Paris and the foreign queen have been accepted with surprising ease by his father, the venerable old King Priam (Peter O’Toole), who fought many wars in his youth and doesn’t need another one. So he reluctantly stands by as Paris, a scrawny lad compared to the beefy warriors surrounding him, insists upon deciding Helen’s fate in one-on-one combat with the older but much stronger Menelaus — a faceoff that goes awry when Hector is forced to kill Menelaus himself, thus unleashing the fury of Agamemnon, whose rashness leads to a massive slaughter of his own men.
Midsection lassitude has a lot to do with Achilles’ petulance and equivocating. After the vainglorious Agamemnon takes credit for the first day’s victory despite Achilles’ almost singlehandedly achieving it — he points out that history remembers kings, not common soldiers — Achilles sits out the next day’s calamity. He also beds down with a captured vestal virgin and cousin of Hector’s, Briseis (Rose Byrne).
What’s really going on, however, is the cinematic fetishizing of an actor on a virtually unequaled level. Appearing almost impossibly buffed, bronzed and chiseled, Pitt is lavished with elaborate photographic attention by Petersen and lenser Roger Pratt, in the way Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich — but very few men — have been. By way of immortalizing the actor’s physical beauty, pic endeavors to turn his character into an icon with godlike status, which surely won’t hurt in attracting audiences among women and gay men.
Only problem is that Pitt’s charisma doesn’t withstand the scrutiny. When Achilles goes into bouts of peevish brooding and arrogant preening, there’s nothing revealed underneath the surface posing. Despite his intense physicality and breathtaking moves in battle (his exceptionally swift and graceful fighting style has been beautifully worked out by stunt coordinator Simon Crane), Pitt ultimately remains too contemporary in style to fit comfortably either in context or among his mostly British, Irish and Australian co-stars (his mid-Atlantic accent even takes on a slight Aussie twang at times).
Still, it’s a tall order: The only actor who comes to mind who perhaps could have filled all the requirements — physical perfection, unsurpassed ego, restive rebelliousness, emotional equivocating — of Achilles as conceived here is the Marlon Brando of about 1952.
Pitt is not the only one glorified by the camera. As Troy’s heir apparent, Bana comes off as a real man’s man, a noble leader and ferocious fighter who would much rather settle down quietly with his wife (Saffron Burrows) and baby son. When it finally comes down to it, the mano-a-mano between Hector and Achilles reps an intense action high point.
Despite his character’s relative wimpiness, Bloom’s Paris is garlanded as befits a prince of the realm. Sean Bean’s sharp-witted Odysseus has his moments, and the physical resemblance of Garrett Hedlund’s Patroclus to his cousin Achilles is used to cunning effect in a crucial combat scene that takes everyone — participants and viewers both — by surprise.
Compared with all these dashing men, the women come off a distant second best, even Kruger’s Helen, whose high-strung, tremulous anxiety makes her less than appealing. Relationship between her and Paris seems like no more than a lusty diversion for both even at its peak, hardly the sort of passion that might result in the deaths of thousands and the ruin of a city. Byrne’s spoils-of-war chattel plays more as a convenient invention than as a woman who could possibly turn Achilles’ head and heart around, while Burrows is all concern and bother as Hector’s wife.
Non-action highlight comes courtesy of O’Toole, who brings with him the invaluable baggage of outsized roles in great epic films and blesses “Troy” with its only moments of tangible nobility. After Achilles has k
illed Hector and dragged his corpse to camp behind his chariot, a disguised Priam makes his way to Achilles’ tent that night to beg for his son’s body. As Achilles could easily kill the aged king at any moment, sequence has an underlying tension, but this is overridden by the power of the old man’s sincerity, heart and courage. O’Toole’s beautifully distilled directness, shaded by the specter of a king brought low, provides the film with its only jolt of emotional resonance.
Eventual climax, which sees the Trojans done in by their own foolishness in dragging the giant wooden horse filled with soldiers into their city, seems almost perfunctory; Achilles’ inevitable death by arrow is delayed almost to the end, and a teenage Aeneas is momentarily introduced to provide a link to the Roman future of some of Troy’s escapees.
Petersen has gathered a massively professional team around him, but despite proficient support, pic lacks a real feel for the epic form. Stylistically, it walks a relatively pedestrian middle road between the magisterial approach on one side and a dive into the mysteries of an ancient culture on the other.
It’s hard to fault the film’s nuts and bolts: The logistics of battle are clear, the fighting convincing, the CGI additions to battle ranks and naval fleet evident but not irksome. But the action, not nearly as bloody or gruesome as that in “Braveheart,” for instance, but rough enough for an R rating nonetheless, totally captures the imagination only at intervals.
Pic benefits strongly from Nigel Phelps’ production design, which, in the absence of hard architectural evidence as to Troy’s look, runs with an interesting combination of Greek, Eastern and Egyptian influences to create a splendid self-contained city with both opulent public spaces and more mundane residential and commercial sections.
Bob Ringwood’s costume designs also keep things interesting by borrowing from different styles, and disparate locations in Malta, for the Troy exteriors, and Mexico, for the beachfront battles outside the walls, combine with London interiors to create an imposing canvas. In a film that could have benefited from a much more unusual and extreme musical treatment, James Horner’s score is too conventional by half.