A lot of people are foggy enough about the battle of Troy’s origins to confuse the story laid out in the “Iliad” with history. I’m sure you’ll hear more than one movie-goer comment on the film’s historical accuracy. Last night I heard at least two. But, like Hidalgo, The Passion, or maybe more like Harry Potter, Troy is another ambitious adaptation that only manages as solid entertainment.
The idea of taking Homer’s battle poem and turning it into a movie is a good one, since it instantly leans towards the epic and contains plenty of notable and screen worthy characters. It’s also a story strongly ingrained in our cultural consciousness, after centuries of required classroom reading. It has already received some comparison to Gladiator, but where that movie was a surely modern fighting flick, the story of Troy lends itself much more to Hollywood’s golden age, the sort of thing that would have attracted a younger Chuck Heston.
Troy is not exactly a throwback to the golden age of epic Hollywood filmmaking, but it is influenced by it. Filled with dusty and grandiose set pieces, it spans kingdoms and seas in following primarily two tales: That of Achilles (Brad Pitt) and his quest for eternal glory and that of Hector’s (Eric Bana) beleaguered, underappreciated defense of the land he loves. Both are dragged somewhat unwillingly into battle through the actions of others. For Hector, it is his irresponsible brother Paris (Orland Bloom) who brings down political trouble when he kidnaps the wife of King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), brother to Agamemnon (Brian Cox), King of all Greece. Menelaus isn’t the best husband, but he takes the theft of his wife Helen somewhat personally. The vicious and somewhat cartoonish Agamemnon seizes his brother’s rage as an opportunity to take the homeland of Princes Hector and Paris, an unconquerable kingdom across the sea named Troy.
While Hector’s motivations are somewhat simple defense of family and country, Achilles’ are much more complicated. He is already Greece’s greatest warrior. A reluctant tool of king Agamemnon he is unbeatable. An often gray and amoral figure, Achilles hungers for more. He has grown weary of battle, but desires immortality. With the attack on Troy billed as the biggest battle in history, he can’t resist another chance to get his name indelibly written in history books.
As Achilles, Brad Pitt is either naked or fighting. There’s no in between. Achilles is a guy who only wears clothes when he’s killing. I'm not sure what that says about his character. But don’t worry guys, it isn’t real Pitt nudity, just side-nudity. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much side-nudity in any film. I now know every intimate inch of Brad Pitt’s naked profile. Troy lacks the courage to show full frontal or even a little bit of ass crack. Odd for any other R-rated movie, but not really for this one which only barelyshows enough carnage to warrant a rated R. It could easily have slipped by as PG-13 and one has to wonder why they bothered at all with an R when the removal of even a thimble-full of blood could have garnered them something lesser. If you’re going to go R, make it worthwhile. Don’t be afraid of women’s breasts. Don’t run away from realistic battle sequences. Hey, throw in a couple of decapitations! This is war, not West Side Story.
What the film’s massive battle sequences sometimes lack in ugly realism is made only worse by Director Wolfgang Petersen’s strange propensity to focus in on one on one battles to the exclusion of all else. A hundred-thousand men clash on the field of battle, yet everything falls silent as soldiers form a big school-yard huddle whenever Hector picks up his sword. Should he dispatch a particularly difficult foe, he mutters “that’s enough” and all one-hundred thousand men just seem to wander home.
Maybe I’ve been permanently spoiled by Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking siege in The Two Towers, but Troy’s bigger and supposedly badder battles just can’t compare. Troy fails to garner any excitement from its massive scale, but Petersen does have an amazing gift for filming one on one action. The final big battle between Achilles and Hector is engrossing and amazing. That’s due in no small part to both Pitt and Bana’s impressive performances, in which both brilliantly capture the physicality of their respective characters.
Pitt is like a deadly viper, racing across battlefields using skill, speed, and daring to defeat any and every foe who steps in his way. He captures the physical aspects of his Achilles in a way I’m not sure anyone else could have. Even standing still he carries himself with an impressive lethality, waiting to spring unexpected from his perfect muscles to deliver unexpected devastation. As far as physical performances go, Brad Pitt excels beyond reason. Yet, when he speaks, he lacks authority. Achilles demands attention and respect. When he parts his lips, Pitt seems pensive and well… almost soft. It’s such a contrast to his dominating physical performance that it seems out of place. Achilles needs more power in his voice and as absolutely brilliant as he is physically, Pitt’s voice just doesn’t have it.
Eric Bana’s voice on the other hand has strength to spare. In fact, he may still be playing the Hulk, growling his way across the screen like a war elephant steeling himself for battle. Hector really is a nice contrast to Pitt’s Achilles, a more traditional warrior who fights with strength and bravery if not Achilles daring and speed. Bana makes him easy to cheer for, imbuing him with a sense of quiet nobility in the face of failures not of his own making.
Hector is the only truly sympathetic character in the movie, with the others landing in darkening shades of grey. Brian Cox’s Agamemnon is an over the top baddie, given little thought beyond his insatiable lust for conquest. Paris is a well meaning child who lacks the foresight to avoid dragging his country into trouble. Helen of Troy (Diane Kruger) is a beauty without a brain, caught up in her own passions without the ability to see beyond her perfect nose. Menelaus plays the victim, but is in reality a womanizing monster who cares less for his missing wife than he does for his wounded pride. King Priam of Troy is a good ruler, played capably by Peter O’Toole, letting his superstition of the gods cloud his better judgment. Odysseus (Sean Bean) seems like he might have been an interesting character, a genuinely good ruler caught up in Agamemnon’s plans. But then I’m only guessing since Sean Bean’s screen time can’t possibly equal more than ten or fifteen minutes, all of it spread evenly throughout the movie’s entire 169 minutes and much of it spent with him standing demurely in the background or repeating the same speech over and over to Achilles.
Still, it is impossible to walk away from Troy completely unsatisfied. Despite some major directing flaws, Petersen does deliver an enjoyably huge (if a little too long) period adventure. Women will no doubt swoon at the legions of male characters clad in thigh revealing leather costumes. Men will go insane over Achilles kicking ass against anything and everything that moves. Troy is big, grandiose, and entertaining. With such a marvelous cast, I wish Petersen had delivered a masterpiece, but I’ll settle for some solid sandal-wearing fun.