Troy is one of those movies – like Gladiator and The Patriot - that wants to be a historical epic and a big summer action blockbuster. Also like many similar films, it actually succeeds far better in being the latter, which ultimately leads to its downfall. I hope that nobody goes to this film expecting to learn actual Greek history or anything about Homer’s “The Iliad” (on which it claims to be based), because Troy is just filled with movie clichés. That’s the problem with this kind of thing; it’s so hard to be historically authentic and action-packed that screenwriters often just plug in old formulas.
Set during the Trojan War, the film has over a half-dozen characters of major importance. Brad Pitt plays Achilles the soldier, who technically serves under Agamemnon (Bryan Cox) but does not respect him. Prince Paris of Troy (Orlando Bloom) begins an affair with Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), causing an already tense battle for control of Troy to be exacerbated. Eric Bana plays Paris’s brother Hector, who tries to do what is right for his brother and for his beloved Troy. Trojan King Priam (Peter O’Toole) watches with great interest, as the future of his land may very well be jeopardized by his son’s affair with Helen.
Agamemnon agrees to help his cuckolded brother capture Troy. His agreement is ostensibly in sympathy, but really he wants to gain more power. The Trojans are not easily taken. Hector leads a valiant defense that initially works. The unexpected element is Achilles, who ends up fighting Hector mano-a-mano and creating general chaos.
Let’s start with the good things about Troy. Director Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, Outbreak) knows how to stage an effective combat scene. Using CGI techniques, he creates armies of thousands to fight each other. Sure, we’ve seen this exact same thing done in other movies ranging from Braveheart to Lord of the Rings, but it’s still impressive. The value of CGI in this kind of movie is that it allows visual spectacle that would be cost-prohibitive were it staged authentically. Such spectacle helps us visualize historical places, and it also helps us imagine styles of combat that are long extinct.
Some of the individual scenes are pretty effective as well. When Hector and Achilles face off in a sword fight, it’s legitimately exciting (even though we pretty much know who’s going to win at that point). There’s an old fashioned sword-and-sandal feel to the scene that’s fun to watch. I liked some of the performances as well. Eric Bana (last seen in Hulk) again proves himself a compelling actor. He nails the inner conflict Hector has between wanting to protect his brother and wanting to smack him upside the head for causing so much trouble with his womanizing. Then there’s the great Peter O’Toole, who has a magnificent scene with Pitt close to the end. O’Toole is obviously a pro. He brings a much-needed sense of dignity to the project that is welcome.
Is it ever. Despite a few good elements, Troy is a major bust. For starters, the pace is much too slow. With a nearly three-hour running time, the story plods along at a seemingly interminable rate. It’s one of those pictures where you look at your watch 90 minutes in, only to painfully realize that it’s only half over. There’s no momentum, no urgency to carry you through.
Part of the reason it drags is because historical epics (as Hollywood makes them these days) are dopey. Screenwriters often don’t really know how to convey anything historic, so they simply go for what’s obvious – which means falling back on movie clichés and stale dialogue. That’s really the case here. Writer David Benioff never misses a chance to have the characters pontificate when they could instead speak simply. As such, the movie contains lines of dialogue that are nearly comical in their effect. When a slave woman whom Achilles develops an improbable affair asks why he’s chosen to become a warrior, he replies: “I chose nothing. I was born, and this is what I am!” Two years ago, a lot of people slagged on George Lucas for the dialogue contained in Star Wars Episode II; if those same people fail to criticize the dialogue in Troy then something is seriously wrong.
There’s also a real problem with the film’s depiction of motivation. Specifically, it provides almost no motivation to anyone. Even if you’re familiar with the Greek legends that constitute the plot, you’ll have to admit that character motivation is weak. This is especially true of Achilles. He’s portrayed as hating Agamemnon, yet wanting to fight Troy, even as he romances a Trojan woman. I would think that Achilles might live by the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but apparently not. It’s never clear how he chooses sides or why he likes one person and not another. This makes it very hard to care about him. (Nor does it help that Brad Pitt gives an uninteresting performance.) The motivations of the other characters are boiled down to simplistic movie clichés. Paris acts out of love for Helen, Hector acts out of the desire to be a Good Brother, and Agamemnon is simply power-hungry. These things can all be the basis for interesting motives, but they are familiar in and of themselves. It would have been nice to see some more psychological complexity. Because there is none of that, the story seems limp.
While some things captured my interest briefly, I was largely bored by Troy. It has the physical look right, but story-wise it’s uninspired. The actors look lost amidst the gargantuan sets and computer effects. If you know the legends of the Trojan War and its players, you are undoubtedly aware of how inherently dramatic the subject can be. This movie misses a lot of that drama, though, and winds up a prime example of Hollywood “epic” making at its most misguided.
( out of four)
Troy is rated R for graphic violence and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 42 minutes.
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