Troy (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The line between epic spectacle and overblown bore is often as unclear as it is easily crossed. So it's no surprise that Wolfgang Petersen's Troy navigates that demarcation like a drunk driver on a twisty two-lane highway. There are times when Troy is stirring and engaging. However, at least as often, it is flat. There's really too much story to cram into a l65-minute period, yet, paradoxically, the movie seems longer than its bloated running length. And all of the visual majesty that hundreds of millions of dollars can buy cannot obscure the perfunctory and unsatisfying development of the major characters.

Troy is loosely (and I emphasize loosely) based on Homer's epic poem "The Illiad," which many educated viewers will have read once (probably in a high school literature class). David Benioff's screenplay keeps most of the places and names, but takes a lot of what could charitably call "artistic license." One of the more interesting changes is to place the Olympians in the background. Troy is a story of men alone, not of men and gods. The filmmakers wanted this movie to follow in the footsteps of Braveheart and Gladiator rather than Clash of the Titans. For my money, it's the right decision.

Most viewers will recognize at least part of the story, which takes place around the year 1250 B.C. (Homer's poem is believed to have been composed about 400 years later). Helen of Sparta (Diane Kruger), the daughter of Zeus and a mortal, is said to be the most beautiful woman alive. When Paris of Troy (Orlando Bloom) accompanies his older brother, Hector (Eric Bana), on a peace mission to Sparta, Paris and Helen fall for each other. The lovers flee to Troy and sanctuary while Helen's scorned husband, Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), encourages his brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), to rouse all of Greece to go to war with Troy. Led by the hero Achilles (Brad Pitt), the Greeks attack the walled city.

With the possible exception of Hector, who is portrayed with depth and feeling by Eric Bana (star of last year's Hulk), the characters in Troy are paper-thin. The biggest disappointment is Brad Pitt's Achilles, whose miniscule personality is overwhelmed by his bronzed skin and bulging muscles. Despite having bulked up for the part, Pitt defines the term "miscast." Achilles is as lifeless a central figure as one is likely to find. Orlando Bloom's Paris and Diane Kruger's Helen fall into the same pretty but personality-free zone. The sparks are left to the veterans - in particular, Peter O'Toole as Troy's King Priam, who employs his limited screen time to fashion a memorable character. In the end, one wishes the film had been focused on the king of Troy rather than the Greek hero.

Troy is chock-full of majestic battle scenes, none of which generate a whiff of energy or suspense. Some might argue that it's hard to make a battle exciting when the end is already known (those familiar with mythology know what happens when the Trojan Horse makes its appearance), but I disagree. I had read Tolkien's books long before viewing Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and was still riveted by the epic battle sequences. Likewise, my recognition of what happened at Gettysburg did not diminish my appreciation of Ronald Maxwell's historically accurate re-telling. What hurts Troy is that there's no imagination or energy to the battles. All we see is the clash between two largely faceless armies hacking at each other. The conflict, like many of the prominent characters, lacks a personality. Petersen's handling of the one-on-one fights (Paris vs. Menelaus, Hector vs. Ajax, Hector vs. Achilles) is more successful.

Troy was an expensive movie to make, and a lot of the money is on the screen. The special effects are well integrated into the live action shots (the scene of 1000 ships sailing to Troy is awe-inspiring), so we don't experience the kind of visual disconnect that often accompanies identifying the presence of computer generated images. James Horner's bombastic score is a disappointing accompaniment, however - easily his worst work in more than two decades. And cinematographer Roger Pratt's lensing of the battle sequences would be more impressive if he wasn't inadvertently competing with the recent memories of similarly vast encounters in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Despite its shortcomings, there are things to appreciate about Troy, not the least of which is that it's aimed at adults, not children - a rarity amidst summer fare. And, since I'm inordinately fond of historically-based epics (even though little is known about the real Troy), I was entertained more often than not. But it seems to me that if a viewer is going to invest nearly three hours, he or she deserves more than what Troy delivers. The best epics work because they provide both visual spectacle and emotional resonance, and the second part of that equation is where Troy falls short. Tertiary love stories (such as the one between Achilles and a slave girl) and noble speeches aren't enough. Petersen understands the importance of believable characters (as he proved in his landmark Das Boot), but, excepting Hector and Priam, he fails to bring these mythological figures to life on the screen. And that, more than anything else, proves to be this film's undoing.

Troy (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 2:45
U.S. Release Date: 2004-05-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1