You can't say they didn't try.
It's all there, and it's all impressive looking, a magisterial highlight reel of Homer's The Iliad, and then some, adapted to the big screen: One thousand ships are launched in the honor of a single runaway maiden named Helen. Troy is sacked and burned to the ground in a holocaust of fire. Vast armies in black metal and leather and dust mop-topped helmets meet at city walls that look sufficiently impregnable, and the result is a cataclysmic pig pile of spears and humanity at the end of a decade-long struggle. Tangled balls of wire and fire roll downhill into waiting armies holding their beachhead.
And more: A very famous Achilles' heel gets pierced by an arrow. A very famous prince is killed and dragged behind a chariot. Dark-haired virgins crumble at the feet of warriors who fight to ensure immortality. A Trojan horse hundreds of feet tall is dragged into a courtyard that, despite historical evidence of what Troy actually looked like, is an evocative mix of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian architecture.
I'll say it again: You can't say they didn't try. Screenwriter David Benioff (of Spike Lee's 25th Hour), a former high school English teacher, even pulled off an intelligent streamlining of Homer's titanic melee of nobility, and cruelty, and grudges, and romances, and large wars, and minor skirmishes, and coincidences, and tragic misunderstandings, and pathos. With almost three hours to work with, he brushes against it all. (Though he leaves the gods out of it, this time.) That epic poem, you might remember from your own high school lit class, was heavy lifting, and often brain meltingly complex. And Benioff honors Homer's intentions, if not his complexities. Future lazy high school students looking to supplement Cliff's Notes with some visuals could do far worse.
But they'd still give themselves away in the end. Because what Troy, this $175 million Wolfgang Peterson production, chiefly and inevitably, evokes is not so much Homer, but a certain midcentury Cecil B. DeMille faux-grandeur. And sword-and-sandal kitsch: Brad Pitt does his best as Achilles, "a man who was born to end lives," we're told. When Paris of Troy (Orlando Bloom) steals away Helen (Diane Kruger) from Sparta, an invasion is launched in name of honor (and empire building), and Achilles becomes the Greeks' go-to soldier. But he's also in the long tradition of American actors with surfer drawls surrounded by British and Irish and Aussie accents in classical material; and so impeccably ripped, and bronzed from the sun, and cocky with worship, that when Pitt's warrior throws a fit in his tent, you imagine the actor throwing a fit in his trailer:
"Virgins and grapes, again?"
Perhaps these Trojan War movies are simply hopeless by nature. Or perhaps a certain dopiness is unavoidable for a story told on so large a scope that nobody ever comes away from them really happy. And here we have perhaps the most ambitious attempt yet: filmmakers who want those tales of the Trojan Wars to be seen as both realistic and mythic, poetic and harsh, intimate and epic. And at times, they come startlingly close to achieving those ambitions. But it's not a world they've created so much as re-created from other movies: You will not come away with a deeper appreciation of Homer. So don't get all nervous. Troy is a popcorn action flick, despite the wailing women on the soundtrack and the visuals that only $175 million could buy.
Despite the almost 50 years that separate Troy from Hollywood's last big-budget flings with widescreen-izing Homer, we have not gotten better at telling one of the most celebrated and dramatic tales in history. (Tales that, it's often argued, are just that: tales.) And you could claim the same awkwardness exists between Hollywood and the Bible. Troy opens with great civilizations about to clash and Brad Pitt, naked and filmed in a honey glow, sleeping off a three-way. Somewhere between that grand scale and Hollywood's worship of its movie gods, the film beaches itself. Sex and violence would seem to suit Hollywood, and yet so little has changed:
On the upside: Troy is resplendent with legendary actors like Peter O'Toole (as Priam, king of Troy) and Julie Christie (as Thetis, goddess mother of Achilles) in adoring parts; there are spareno-
expense production values; and the battles are predictably
show-stopping and exciting. On the downside: Those sandals still
look like they were purchased yesterday; the dialogue ( I m
worried what will happen to tomorrow ) is eye-rolling; the romances
laughable; and pretenses eventually outstrip whatever
joy there is. Troy doesn t have a drop of humor, and even Gladiator,
its box-offi ce inspiration, let Joaquin Phoenix mince around
in a snit that acknowledged the camp pleasures in these fi lms.
Pitt has the most potential for that. He s really not bad,
considering Peterson practically fetishizes his chiseled profi le:
Pitt s asked to be intimidating and preening simultaneously,
the world s fi rst action god. But he s also meant to suggest a degree
of naivete, coupled with a nagging voice in the back of his
head that says he s fi ghting for nothing, his immortality will not
come from his prowess. But Pitt betrays so little depth, it takes
a single scene with O Toole to knock emotion back in. Stealing
to the enemy camp to recover his son Hector (Eric Bana, who
has a touching gravity in his eyes), O Toole s Priam brings
along a wistful melancholy, and an honor that makes Pitt s Achilles
shrink. You don t know where the character ends and the
actor s own intimidation begins.
Troy could have used more intimacy like that. I think the
solution to fi xing this genre is focusing tighter on the people
and not the war. But Peterson, who once separated men from
their battles with Das Boot, has become increasingly beholden
to computer-generated action.
As with A Perfect Storm and Air Force One, he s made an impersonal
picture, a middle-brow epic without a real point of view.
It s no surprise that the hand-to-hand combat here is electric
Pitt s combat style is striking, pun intended and everything
around it monotonous.
O Toole s haunted eyes alone suggests the world Peterson has
in mind, but it s not a world we ever really believe existed. Here,
it s a world Homer seems to have cribbed off Cecil B. DeMille, and
not the other way around. And though he himself might have
never existed, one does wonder what Homer would have
thought of a Hollywood that makes legend and the upheaval
of western civilization feel so routine. And not the dead guy, but the Simpson.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org