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Troy (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 14 May 2004
Peter Jackson and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy may have set an impossibly high standard for movies about epic ancient battles. On the one hand, this is unfair, and on the other, the thought is just about unavoidable in Troy, not so much because the battle scenes themselves are lacking, but rather because much of what surrounds them – while ostensibly based on history – seems somehow less naturalistic than a story involving hobbits and orcs. “Troy” opens with a scene of Greek king/general Agamemnon (Brian Cox) agreeing to avert a full-scale battle with another kingdom by letting the dispute be settled by their respective champions. This introduces us to Greek military hero Achilles (Brad Pitt), the most famous soldier in the known world. The glory-loving Agamemnon can’t bear the fact that a mere fighter is more acclaimed than he is, while the surly Achilles despises his ruler and can barely agree to fight for him.

In neighboring Sparta, Agamemnon’s brother King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) is celebrating a peace treaty with representatives from Troy, Crown Prince Hector (Eric Bana) and his younger brother Paris (Orlando Bloom). Paris has become captivated with Menelaus’s tremendously unhappy young queen Helen (Diane Kruger) and winds up spiriting her away on the Trojan ship. The infinitely more sensible Hector is appalled by Paris’ actions, but can’t return Helen to her husband without getting his naïve but stubborn brother killed. The result is that Helen accompanies them to Troy, where Hector and Paris’ father King Priam (Peter O’Toole) welcomes her with open arms, even though he realizes war is the likely result. He’s right – Menelaus is furious and his rage is Agamemnon’s excuse to try to conquer Troy. Troy’s walls have withstood every invasion so far, but Agamemnon’s army has vanquished every opposing force it has faced.

Composer James Horner puts a solemn drum beat over the Warner Bros. logo, while director Wolfgang Petersen shortly thereafter establishes a feeling of scope, as armies trudge forward with thousands of heavy footfalls. Sound plays a large part in the proceedings – there is a visceral feeling of adrenaline and testosterone as the combat-ready soldiers pound on their shields, arrows shoot past us from the rears and eventually, spectacular fireballs detonate with palpable impact. The colors are beautifully saturated, producing some uncommonly rich blues in both the sea and some of the costumes, while the cinematography gives us a sense of desert heat in daylight combat sequences.

A supertitle indicating the events take place 3200 years ago is arguably helpful, but the heavy narration at the beginning is a bit loaded, and dialogue in an early bedroom scene between Helen and Paris is so clichéd that one fears for the film. However, writer David Benioff does have some original dramatic ideas, and most of the actors are so powerful that they give credence to some fairly intense scenes. Bana is a particular standout, playing Hector with such authority, intelligence, concern and warmth that we don’t doubt why his country considers him a hero worth following and dying for. Both in looks and performance, Bloom is a good match as his weaker but sweet brother Paris, who depicts various stages of courage shading into stark terror with great conviction. Kruger is absolutely beautiful as Helen – she’s mainly called upon to be sorrowing and scared, but she rises to the occasion with a monologue about the surprising reason (especially in a film of this type) that she is so taken with Paris. Cox and O’Toole both tackle their roles in Shakespearean fashion, which is appropriate, while Gleeson conveys ferocity mingled with brotherly fealty. Sean Bean as Odysseus smoothly embodies the quiet wiliness the character is known for.

This leaves Pitt as Achilles, who is suitably buff and moves well, but is at a cultural disadvantage every time he speaks and sounds both American and contemporary, making him seem out of place among the rest of the cast, who almost all speak in British accents (even though some of them are Irish, Australian or likewise non-English). He also doesn’t really convince us that this is someone who has spent most of his life leading men into the close-range battle that swordplay requires – we can believe he’s killed people, but he just doesn’t exude the weariness of soul that the script would seem to require.

However, Pitt’s lack of period/warlike credibility is not the biggest problem here. “Troy” wants on the one hand to be one of those films that makes us weep for the folly of war and on the other hand to cheer on the courage of individuals. Director Petersen stages some impressively hell-for-leather fights – both massive melees and one-on-ones – that provide satisfaction in both action and emotional terms, but the premise sometimes tangles on itself. The script starts to feel particularly goofy when it resolves the Trojan War – which dragged on in legend for a decade – in a matter of months, with outcomes for a number of characters that are at odds with what we know from myth and drama.

On balance, however, the kinetic spectacle of the combat and Bana’s performance are worth putting up with the film’s shortcomings. “Troy” is not a film for the ages, but it’ll do for a few hours’ entertainment.

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