Homer’s Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem set during the Trojan War. It is based on the struggles between two great ancient empires that was Greek and Troy.
THIS war will never be forgotten. Nor will the heroes who fight in it.” This line of dialogue expresses a thought that recurs frequently, with various inflections and in the mouths of various heroes, over the nearly two and a half hours of Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy,” which had its world premiere here last night and opens nationwide in the United States today. In one sense, it is less a prophecy than a statement of the obvious, since the names of Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and the rest have endured for 3,000 years. At the same time, though, the endless talk of immortality seems to express the picture’s anxious, na?ve ambition, which is to rise above the welter of summer blockbusters and ascend into the pantheon of movie classics.
This is most unlikely. “Troy,” which cost something approaching the gross national product of modern Greece, will be lucky to survive the arrival of “Shrek 2” on Wednesday. But for what it is ? a big, expensive, occasionally campy action movie full of well-known actors speaking in well-rounded accents ? “Troy” is not bad. It has the blocky, earnest integrity of a classic comic book, and it labors to respect the strangeness and grandeur of its classical sources. Some moments may make you rue the existence of cinema, or at least of movies with sound, since the dialogue often competes with James Horner’s score for puffed-up obviousness. But there are others ? crisply edited combat sequences, tableaus of antique splendor, a hugely muscled Brad Pitt modeling the latest in Hellenic leisure wear ? that remind you why you like movies in the first place.
From its opening scenes, “Troy,” freely adapted by David Benioff from “The Iliad” and other sources, plunges you into a world shaped by complex codes of honor, loyalty and military virtue. Or, rather, it plunges you into a world where people talk about such things incessantly, and where every speech is punctuated by booming timpani and the ululations of an apparently tongueless female singer, her inarticulate moans announcing that this is not just a movie but an epic. Still, for once there really is a solid epic architecture underneath all the pageantry, and not just a very long movie set in the distant past.
Mr. Benioff’s script, for all its line-by-line infelicities, shows a real fascination with Homer’s great characters, and with the nexus of divided loyalties and competing ambitions that led to so much death and destruction. Unlike movies that take war as a simple contest of good and evil, “Troy” remains faithful to Homer (and to human nature) by understanding war as a political event, with plenty of viciousness and virtue to go around. Like his screenplay for Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” (based on his own novel), “Troy” is fundamentally a story about treachery and brotherhood ? about the fallibility and fragile nobility of men.
In other words, it was not all Helen’s fault. Helen, played by Diane Kruger, a German model, is perfectly lovely, and it is easy to see why she prefers the boyish Paris (Orlando Bloom) to grouchy Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), the ruler of Sparta. But their puppyish romance is the trivial pretext for the war rather than its true cause. Menelaus’s jealousy is exploited by his brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox), who uses the insult to further his imperial ambitions. His chief weapon is the sullen Achilles (Mr. Pitt), who in an early scene strolls out of his love tent, like a petulant movie star summoned from his trailer, to dispatch an enormous Thessalonian warrior with a single stroke of the sword.
Achilles’ temperament ? a volatile mixture of vanity, cynicism and sentimentality ? is the key to the movie, and Mr. Pitt attacks the role with the same vigor and agility the character demonstrates in combat. Yes, his accent sounds a bit like Madonna’s, perhaps in deference to the mostly English and Australian actors who make up most of the cast, but for once he does not seem embarrassed by his charisma, or driven to subvert it with actorish tics. Achilles’ narcissism is like that of a modern celebrity: he fights because it will bring him fame, not to serve the gods or the glory of the Greek nation or, least of all, his corrupt king. His true loyalty is to individuals ? his beloved cousin Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), his ruthless Myrmidons and his love interest, the captured Trojan priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne) ? rather than to causes.
His Trojan counterpart is Paris’s brother, Hector (Eric Bana), who is constrained by the bonds of kinship, duty and patriotism that Achilles disdains. If Achilles is a kind of existentialist rock star, Hector is a stoical family man, protective of his wayward brother, respectful of his father, Priam (Peter O’Toole), and devoted to his wife, Andromache (Saffron Burrows) and their infant son. The events leading up to Hector’s duel with Achilles ? a tempest of failure, deceit and unappeasable emotion ? are the beating heart of Homer’s poem, and the filmmakers approach them with respectful sobriety, even going so far as to lower the volume on Mr. Horner’s music. Mr. Bana, after his tentative superhero turn in “The Hulk,” shows more confidence here. His brooding, bearded countenance plays against Mr. Pitt’s gleaming blondness, and the visual contrast emphasizes the differences between the characters.
Meanwhile, you can savor a generational contrast in acting styles whenever Mr. Cox or Mr. O’Toole appears onscreen. Mr. O’Toole, frail and pale-eyed, quavers and whispers his way through the movie with regal panache, and with that sly knack, common among British actors of a certain age, for seeming utterly aloof from the movie and at the same time utterly committed to it. Mr. Cox, for his part, never misses an opportunity to toss his impressive hair extensions and bellow like a beast of prey. If Odysseus hadn’t thought up the Trojan Horse, this Agamemnon would have chewed through the walls of Troy all by himself.
Whether “Troy” will spur a revival of Hollywood interest in ancient literature remains to be seen, but the Greek and Roman canon is full of franchise potential, since it consists mainly of sequels, prequels and spin-offs. Some are signaled near the end of Mr. Petersen’s film as the Greeks overrun the city. (What’s your name, kid? Aeneas? Here, take this sword and go found another city somewhere else. Penelope? Yeah, it’s Odysseus. Yeah. Bad connection. Listen, I’ll be home soon. Who were you just talking to?) One notable sequel, however, has been foreclosed, by a killing that is certainly merited but that will nonetheless be surprising to scholars. I won’t spoil it, but if I were Aeschylus, I’d call my agent.
“Troy” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for intense violence and brief nudity.
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