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Grecian Formula

 

Troy

Wolfgang Petersen, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.5

 

Posted: May 17, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

A funny thing happens on the way to the Trojan War in Troy, Wolfgang Peterson's lithe, tanned attempt at a swords-and-sandals summer blockbuster. The film begins as a puzzlingly miscast historical epic, peopled with more pretty, Anglo-Saxon faces than one would expect from one of the classics of ancient Greek literature: Blond, bantamweight Brad Pitt as Achilles, one of the fiercest and most feared fighters in all of history? Sleek, blonde (and bland) Diane Kruger, all supermodel skinniness and poise, as Helen, the Face That Launched A Thousand Ships? As Troy unfolds, you can almost hear the grinding teeth of English and Classics majors girding themselves for a campy corn-fest along the lines of the Sam J. Jones Flash Gordon.

But what appears at first blush to be an all-star grab for Gladiator gold pulls its own Trojan Horse play, delivering a surprisingly sturdy action-adventure flick that turns most of its apparent Achilles Heels into unlikely strengths. The result isn't apt to conquer the Oscars, but it eventually becomes clear that victory -- awards, acclaim, a place beside The Lord of the Rings or Lawrence of Arabia in the cinematic firmament -- isn't the point of Troy: Rather, this ambitious Hollywood confection uses its own big-budget, star-studded brawn to chisel an examination into the nature of ambition itself.

We first get a sense of the strange appropriateness of Pitt's casting in the handsome prologue, in which the Greek army descends on Thessaly, the lone Greek kingdom not under the sprawling rule of lusty Agamemnon (a burly Brian Cox). When Agamemnon agrees to decide Thessaly's fate by pitting the two kings' champions against each other in man-to-man combat, he calls for Achilles, who isn't even on the battlefield. Turns out the fabled warrior is sleeping off a sexual conquest back in his tent, and he saunters over to the battlefield in his own sweet time, either unaware or unmoved that he's forcing a staggeringly large undertaking to bow to his own schedule -- much like a vain movie star, oddly enough. Achilles' insouciance irks Agamemnon, but we soon learn why the king's willing to put up with such behavior: Achilles nails the fight in one take, floating through the air in a CGI move, plunging his sword into his opponent with Matrix effortlessness. Achilles may be difficult and even petulant, but he delivers the goods.

From here, Troy begins to tread the familiar, sand-caked narrative terrain of Homer's The Iliad, but we're already primed not to expect anything but the very loosest of adaptations. Paris (Orlando Bloom), a prince neighboring Troy, caps a friendly visit to uneasy ally Sparta by taking the lissome Helen -- wife of Spartan king Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) -- as an unannounced parting gift. The young prince's older brother Hector is suitably outraged when he discovers that Paris has sparked certain war, but his protective older-brother gene kicks in, and he grudgingly proceeds for Troy; Eric Bana (Hulk) invests the role of Troy's most steadfast warrior with a filial loyalty that underscores his quiet nobility.

Menelaus prevails upon Agamemnon, his brother, to declare war on Troy, which has always stood just outside the grasp of the power-hungry Greek ruler. Agamemnon needs little convincing: in his brother's jealous rage, he spies the rationale for the one war he's always craved, and soon the fabled thousand ships have set sail, with Achilles and his band of Myrmidons in tow. (Achilles cares little for Agamemnon, who has a tendency to take credit for the fruit of Achilles' labor, but his dislike for the king is tempered by his palpable lust for glory, which the coming war promises in spades.) When the milquetoast Paris nobly offers to fight Menelaus mano-a-mano for Helen's hand, Agamemnon agrees only because it will satisfy his brother. Who cares whether Menelaus or Paris wins? Either way, his unquenchable thirst for this war will carry him to the walls of Troy.

But Agamemnon finds that Troy won't be quite so easy a conquest as he'd originally thought. Achilles has petulantly decided to sit out this round, after having almost single-handedly taken Troy's beaches and established the Greek beachhead; turns out he's miffed at Agamemnon for appropriating the comely Apollonian priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne). Hector and his stalwart Trojan army force the Greeks into a retreat. The parallels to our current situation in Iraq are hard to ignore, but Petersen isn't out to repaint the Iraq war as a mythical epic. Rather, Troy deftly uses the modern-day war to its advantage, counting on the audience to bring its own subtext to flesh out its central conceit: That the death and violence of war come down to the sullen vagaries of fallible human pride.

Troy plays fast and loose with its subject material, condensing 10 years of struggle into a tidy couple of weeks, reshuffling the order and manner of deaths and even tacking on the legend of the Trojan Horse, among other things, from Virgil's The Aeneid, written centuries after Homer's Iliad. There's nothing inherently wrong with this: Myths and legends have proven famously mutable, with each different permutation reflecting the greater whole. If the legend of Hercules can survive the Kevin Sorbo series of the same name, and if the modern-day myth of Superman can withstand the Christopher Reeve movies, Smallville, the WB cartoon and countless other facets, then Homer can survive Petersen's condensation of his timeless epic.

But it helps that Troy takes the areas where it diverges from the text (or common sense) and turns them into pluses: Pitt's movie-star charisma and prickly public persona helps us swallow his surly Achilles as a flinty, fearsome and respectable warrior (the special effects don't hurt either). Helen's wispy beauty marginalizes her, but that's all to the good, emphasizing her role, if you will, as this film's Weapons of Mass Destruction, the pretext upon which a complex war is staged.

Even the film's decision to keep the action grounded in the world of humans, without the appearance of the Greek gods, reveals itself as a wise move: In The Iliad, the gods control the action, moving men and armies like chess pieces. But in Troy, the action is driven entirely by human greed and vanity: The selfish love of Paris and Helen; the naked ambition of Achilles, who seeks to write his name into history through glorious battle; and Agamemnon's less-attractive, consuming lust for power and conquest.

Those interpersonal relationships play a part in holding Troy back from becoming a towering epic, but again, that's not what it's after. And it does offer some fine performances, notably from the steely, human Bana; the legendary Peter O'Toole, too-little used as Troy's tragic King Priam; and Sean Bean (Boromir from The Lord of the Rings) as Odysseus, who emerges in his few scenes as our moral compass, a barometer of the forces swirling around him. He serves Agamemnon out of practicality more than respect, teaching the hot-headed Achilles that to lead, sometimes one has to follow (and make no mistake, Achilles does eventually learn that there's a greater motivation than war). Quiet and charismatic, Bean makes one long for the chance for him to reprise his role in a sequel based on The Odyssey. What a movie that would be. But until such a film arrives, Troy contains enough surprises -- in its plot, its performances and its eventual sturdiness as a summer action vehicle -- to hold us over.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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