Helen's face may have launched a thousand ships 3200 years ago, but Brad Pitts' body catapulted Troy to the top of the box office on its opening weekend. No matter how well director Wolfgang Petersen has crafted war drama (Das Boot) or commanded special effects (A Perfect Storm), Warner Brothers never would have shelled out $185,000,000 in advance without Pitts' presence. Thus, Troy contains something for everyone--a "chick flick" war adventure (with dashes of homo-eroticism and a few fine dramatic moments) that suitably adapts Homer to inspire thousands of high school comparative essays.
Despite its cinematic qualities, the very nature of Homer's epic poem makes a cohesive one-sitting film difficult since it covers so much ground. Spanning the ten-year Trojan War from both the Trojan and Greek viewpoints while incorporating the gods, The Iliad is constructed to play relatively long and feel unwieldy. Petersen does streamline the plot by reducing the apparent length of the siege and leaving the gods out of the visible action--forgoing conventions forged by Jason and the Argonauts, The Clash of the Titans, and all previous films concerning classical mythology. Outside Julie Christie's ethereal cameo as Achilles' mother (immortal nymph Thetis), Petersen presents the human side of the conflict, with passing references to the gods. The dual heroes clearly demonstrate that they rely on their own powers far more than supplicating the gods. Hector (Bana) practically rolls his eyes when his father bases battle decisions on his priests' omens while Achilles (Pitt) actually lops off the golden head of Apollo's statue in Troy's sacred temple.
Much has been written about Pitt's golden boy visage and his lack of depth, but he does create a memorable Achilles that comes from Homer's description. To hone his 40-year old body into a suitable fighting vessel and rippled enough to cause women to swoon, Pitt embarked on an ambitious 6-month program with a personal trainer. The results are credible, and Petersen's camera unashamedly caresses Pitt's sculpted Grecian body to great effect. The greatest of the Greek warriors and virtually indestructible (save his famous heel), Achilles only fights when motivated—for glory and immortality generally, although he does get fired up when his beloved cousin is killed. Anyone that criticizes Pitt for spending most of the Trojan War lounging around his tent should do the same for Homer since his Achilles does the same.
We don't get inside Pitt's reserved character, but that seems a deliberate and valid choice for the enigmatic hero. Pitt plays his darker and brooding side, rarely letting down his emotional cover save for the over-the-top Brando-esque moments crying outside the Trojan walls: “HECTOR! . . . HECTOR!” His disdain for war and hatred for Greek King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) are blatant, creating the outward conflict vividly enough for even casual viewers to understand. The Greeks only win when inspired by Achilles, so ambitious Agamemnon must find ways to get Achilles to participate so he can bask in a kingly victory. This pisses off Achilles after he's led a heroic charge to take the Trojan beach only to find the various Greek kings congratulating Agamemnon on his victory, leading to Odysseus' line that continues to apply today: "War is young men dying and old men talking." Among a number of scenes that could be interpreted as "anti-war," Achilles remarks, "Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn't that be a sight?"
Equally bashed for his character shallowness is Orlando Bloom as Paris, but he is cast for his good looks and recent box office appeal. Although his character is important for the part, having started the whole war by stealing Helen away to Troy, Bloom doesn't have all that much to do. He just needs to show up to support the plot, pretending to love Helen and reprising his Legolas' bow prowess in the end. True to the spirit of Homer, this simply isn't his story. The real stars remain Achilles and Hector. And as most classical students and professors have maintained over the years, Hector ranks as the primary hero of the tragic tale.
To this purpose Eric Bana truly comes into his own. Previously best known for Chopper, the Australian actor demonstrates great nuances as the Trojan's conflicted warrior hero. While Pitt never lets down his movie star guard, Bana shares his inner turmoil and humanity far more intimately and "becomes" Hector. A reluctant warrior like Achilles, Hector desires peace: "I've killed men and I've heard them dying and I've watched them dying and there's nothing glorious about it." Yet when faced with seeing his younger brother die in dishonor or when ordered to unwisely attack the Greeks, Hector does his soldierly duty, becoming the most sympathetic character of the film.
Other acting kudos go to Peter O'Toole and Brian Cox as rival kings. King Priam demonstrates kingly elegance under O'Toole, who takes the best moment in the film when he poignantly confronts Achilles to beg a fatherly favor--done after Achilles has deeply offended him and all humanity with a vengeful chariot drag. How could Achilles deny such a brave act with O'Toole's watery steel blue eyes reminding him of his warrior code? In entirely different mode, character actor Cox chews up every scene he appears in to personify the ultimate Machiavellian ruler that uses people for his political purposes. Although a supporting role, it's nearly as memorable as his unsurpassed portrait of Hannibal Lector in Manhunter.
The sets are relatively simple for such a large budget, but are effective since the highlights are the battle scenes and personal conflicts—the best being the ultimate WWF battle choreographed between Hector and Achilles. On a low note, James Horner creates one of the most monotonous scores in recent memory, competing only with other films that he's been hired to crank out. If you begin to have visions from The Wrath of Khan during the battle scenes, there's ample reason since Horner scored that one and he frequently borrows from his previous work. Composition speed is Horner's greatest asset, but they should change the title credits from "Original musical score" to "Adapted score." This one is so hideous, however, that Horner likely went back to his grade school composition books for this one. Its blaring trumpet blasts, ponderous drumbeats, and constipated moaning sounds seem especially amateurish. Hopefully the DVD will provide a "mute" function to block out the irritating soundtrack since the only relief comes from rare silent moments.
Time will tell whether Warner Brothers recoups its investment, but Peterson definitely delivers the goods with an effective Cliff's Notes version of Homer. But that comes strictly from the eye of the beholder since others are certain to focus on sensuous shots of Orlando Bloom's profile or Pitt's naked torso. Students may find Troy's nearly 3 hour running time slow-going but compared to the time often spent reading, studying, and analyzing Homer's source material, this is a trifle. I know a pair of English teachers who once subjected their freshmen high school students to an entire semester of a line-by-line study of The Iliad and The Odyssey, so Peterson's film should come as welcome relief to both students and teachers. A flawed epic, Peterson's cinematic interpretation still paints valid broad strokes and provides enough entertaining moments to warrant continued viewing. Let the comparative essays and critiques roll.