I freely and unapologetically admit that I am not a fan of sword-and-sandals movies, and have never quite gotten their appeal beyond the beefcake level. They tend to bore me after a very short time, and their tendency toward irredeemably bad dialogue loses its amusement value in an even shorter one. So you might want to bear this in mind in considering my underwhelmed reaction to Troy, which struck me as nothing more than a bigger, louder, glossier and possibly even sillier film than all those cheesy Italian cheapies with U.S. titles like Mole Men Vs. the Son of Hercules.
I do remember that when I was about 10 years old, I liked such things. I thought Silvio Amadio’s The Minotaur was the ne plus ultra of cinematic excellence — mostly, I think, because we got to see the heroine’s father run through with a sword. (Critical sensibilities are simpler at 10.) Yet if I saw that same film today, I’d probably be less impressed — though at least it still would have the good sense to be 90 minutes long and not 165. And even with a badly dubbed English soundtrack, I find it unlikely that The Minotaur has anything nearly as unintentionally funny as the answer to the question raised by King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) as to the whereabouts of Mrs. Menelaus (Diane Kruger): “She left — with the Trojans!” (I was hoping Menelaus would get huffy and say, “Damn! And I was all set for a jazzy weekend on Crete. Run down to Nia Vardolos-Mart and get me some more.” But no such luck.)
There are a lot of things wrong with Troy. We could start with Brad Pitt’s wavering efforts to sound like a recent graduate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (we all know, of course, that characters in this kind of historical drama have English accents). We could, in fact, start with the idea of casting the invincibly modern Pitt in the film at all, since he looks far more like he’s ready for a photo spread in Vanity Fair than for battle. We might also question the historical accuracy of having ancient-Greek soldiers comport themselves like spectators at a WWF Smackdown event, or like the audience on The Jerry Springer Show.
However, I think the film’s greatest sin lies in its ponderously serious tone. Instead of a silly Hercules picture, we’re given something more like a 1950s Biblical epic. You know, one of those unintentionally campy things where ancient civilizations have exceedingly well-trained dancing girls executing Busby Berkeley production numbers on shiny bakelite floors and incurring the wrath of God and the effects department. But even those at least had the wrath of God going for them.
The great idea of screenwriter David Benioff (25th Hour) and director Wolfgang Petersen (here more in Outbreak mode than Das Boot) was to adapt Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, and take out the gods. Maybe they thought gods were passe and might make people laugh at their oh-so-serious film. I guess that’s not unreasonable, but it leaves us with a story where everything revolves around the dubiously motivated antics of two of the most vapid characters imaginable — Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Helen of Sparta/Troy (German model/actress Kruger).
As written by Benioff and played by Bloom and Kruger, these are about the most worthless, spoiled, self-absorbed characters in history. Their great love — spawned, it seems, from a one-night stand — is never believable for a moment, not in the least because it’s hard to imagine either one of them tearing him or herself away from a mirror for long enough to notice anyone else. But this undercooked teenage love story is all we have to go on for the launching of a thousand CGI ships, the slaughter of thousands of people and the destruction an entire country.
That even the most doting father (Peter O’Toole) and the most tolerant brother (Eric Bana) could possibly fall in line with this rather than pack Helen off back home and send Paris to his room for a few days (“No more peace missions for you, my lad!”) is far harder to swallow than the idea of all this being the result of the machinations of constantly bickering gods and godesses. There’s a certain aptness in having Paris come across as the ancient-world variant on one of those useless leading men often found in old horror movies — the ones who spend most of the climax lying unconscious in a corner only to get up just in time to shoot the wrong person.
But even within these confines, what we get is a very mixed bag of performances and concepts that never quite mix. Eric Bana and Sean Bean (playing Odysseus) treat it all very seriously, and actually bring some weight to the proceedings. O’Toole as King Priam retains his dignity and even manages to be quite moving in an otherwise badly conceived scene where he comes to reclaim his elder son’s body from Achilles, who has been dragging the corpse around behind his chariot. (Is this the ancient-Greek equivalent of tying a raccoon tail to your car’s radio aerial?) The scene is underwritten (it sidesteps the question of how Priam just waltzed into the enemy camp to talk to Achilles), and Pitt is out of his element playing against O’Toole (I kept expecting him to call Priam “dude”). O’Toole, however, is in fine form.
The only person who seems to understand that this is big-budget junk is Brian Cox as the perfidious King Agamemnon. He storms, he blusters, he bullies, he rants, he raves, he chews the scenery to bits and steals every scene he’s in. In fact, Cox is by far the liveliest thing about the movie; he leaves the preening Pitt in the dust. The latter seems less concerned with acting than with showing off the results of his six- or eight-month (depending on which P.R. source you read) buffing-up sessions and having a hot time with a romance invented for the film just so nobody gets the “wrong” idea about Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus (newcomer Garret Hedlund).
OK, so the battles are huge (though it’s often hard to tell who’s fighting whom in the big scenes), the sets are magnificent and the CGI is generally impeccable. Still, none of that’s surprising, and it hardly makes up for the scripting problems and the film’s strained seriousness. If only Troy had some sense of fun, of action, of adventure, and wasn’t so bogged down in the belief of its own importance and significance, it might be a pretty good popcorn flick (albeit a torturously overlong one).
As it is … well, if all that matters to you is the prospect of seeing nearly three hours of hunky guys in leather miniskirts, then this is the film for you.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke