By Rob Blackwelder
For moviegoers anxious to see Brat Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana oiled up and sweaty in various states of undress, Hollywood's handsome, aggrandized, $200-million-plus swords-and-sandals epic "Troy" has a lot to offer -- a whole lot to offer.
For those seeking a "Gladiator"-style, thinking-person's summer action movie, the film is on shakier ground -- and for folks more interested in watching the Trojan War of Homer's "Iliad" brought to life, brace yourselves for disappointment.
Screenwriter David Benioff ("25th Hour") takes many, many liberties with his source material, some of which are creative and shrewd, like using the mistaken-identity battlefield death of Achilles' look-alike cousin to imply how legends of the warrior's immortality spread in this version of the story which is devoid of gods, demigods and such mythology.
It's an intelligent script full of character and complexity, even if it does reduce the nine-year war to a matter of days and gives Achilles (Brad Pitt) a love interest to soften up his otherwise deliberately hard-edged image as a soldier of fortune who fights not for a cause or a king but simply for his own glory.
But "Troy" is a movie in which the richness on the page -- Beioff doesn't take sides and has gone out of his way to substantiate the heroic, imprudent, arrogant, idealistic, loyal, naive or self-serving motives of every important character -- gets lost in grandiose over-production and marquee-motivated casting.
The ancient story begins, of course, with the irresponsibly love-blinded Prince Paris of Troy (Orlando Bloom) spiriting away from a peace summit in Sparta with that nation's queen, the mesmerisingly beautiful Helen (newcomer Diane Kruger) -- much to the shock and dismay of his warrior brother Hector (Eric Bana) and more importantly to the fury of Sparta's King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson).
Pursued to the impenetrable walls of his native city by an incredibly realistic, CGI-rendered, vast armada of ships carrying Greek troops -- commanded by the opportunistic conqueror Agamemnon (Brian Cox) -- a furious battle of the ages soon ensues. But while director Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm") relishes in vivid, large-scale episodes of up-close combat, these centerpiece scenes ultimately fail because, thanks largely to excessive cut-per-second editing, its impossible to ascertain the tide of the combat until one commander or another sounds a retreat.
The film's shortcomings in war (whole battles absurdly come to a halt so background combatants can serve as a surrogate audience for showpiece swordfights) are not, however, as frustrating as the miscasting of the entire top tier of lead characters.
Acting stretch marks are visible on Pitt's attempt to shed his innately modern sheen in portraying a complicated, anti-hero version of Achilles -- and it's even harder to take the guy seriously when he's introduced in bed with two girls, and spends a good third of the movie showing off his distractingly buff bod.
In the thanklessly drippy role of Paris, Bloom ("Lord of the Rings," "Pirates of the Caribbean") has such a hard time finding a balance between childish self-interest (allowing his whole nation to go to war over a girl) and honorable, failed attempts at gallantry. In fact, it's hard to imagine what Helen sees in him (other than his own softer, prettier torso on display in several scenes).
But then unremarkably pretty Kruger doesn't exactly stand out in a crowded room herself, let alone measure up to her character's legendary description as the face that launched 1,000 ships. The role cries out for someone with striking, uncommon looks and enough gravitas to make the character more than just a spoil of war (and by extension, force Paris to be a more interesting fellow). Where's Angelina Jolie when she's really needed?
Although his pecks get almost as much screen time as his face, Bana ("The Hulk") fares a little better as Hector, a mighty warrior with some conflict to chew on as he chooses familial loyalty (and fighting his little brother's battles for him) over political wisdom. Peter O'Toole is also well cast as Troy's King Pram, father to Hector and Paris. But the film's only exceptional performance comes courtesy of Brian Cox, who is graciously but deliciously malevolent as the brazen pillager Agamemnon.
"Troy" benefits greatly from its production design and warriors' costumes, which look rough-and-tumble masculine despite the leather-armor skirts and long locks of curls sported by the Spartans. Benioff and Petersen do a fine job of making this story's clichés feel crisp -- even the Trojans' ready acceptance of the infamous giant wooden horse doesn't feel like the trap that anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the classics knows it is.
All the film's better elements come together in a way that can hold one's interest for its 165-minute run-time, but the only moments that truly stand out amongst the battles and beefcake are Achilles' fight scenes. Trained by a swordsman named Steven Ho, Brad Pitt has mastered an unpretentious, poetically fluid, almost effortlessly deadly style of screen combat that is the minimalistic antithesis of the cool Hong-Kong overkill of "The Matrix" and its ilk.
Had the rest of the film been as elegant and studied as Pitt's swordplay, "Troy" might have been a classic.
Run time: 163 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th May 2004
Box Office USA: $133.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $497.4M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros., Radiant Productions, Helena Productions, Latina Pictures, Plan B Entertainment, Nimar Studios
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
Fresh: 120 Rotten: 102
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Brad Pitt as Achilles, Orlando Bloom as Paris, Eric Bana as Hector, Brian Cox as King Agamemnon, Sean Bean as Odysseus, Brendan Gleeson as Menelaos, Diane Kruger as Helena, Peter O'Toole as Priam, Rose Byrne as Briseis, Saffron Burrows as Andromache, Garrett Hedlund as Patroclos, Vincent Regan as Eudorus, Julie Christie as Thetis, John Shrapnel as Nestor, Tyler Mane as Ajax
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