Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Troy Movie Review: An Ancient Classic for the MTV Generation

This review was first written and published in May 2004 for a website that no longer exists. The unusual structure is a remnant of that site's requirements.
Synopsis: Paris (Orlando Bloom), a Trojan prince and son of Priam (Peter O’Toole), robs Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) of his beautiful bride, Helen (Diane Kruger), while on a peace envoy. Menelaus demands vengeance. With the aid of his brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), they mobilize 50,000 Greek soldiers to set sail for Troy. For Menelaus it is a war of pride in defending his manhood. For Agamemnon it is a war of conquest and the fulfillment of his desire to rule over all the kingdoms within his grasp.

The story is based loosely on Homer’s The Iliad. The two major players in the Trojan War are Hector (Eric Bana), brother to Paris and fiercest soldier in the Trojan army, and Achilles (Brad Pitt), the seemingly invincible Achaen warrior who leads the Myrmidons into battle. Of course, Achilles and Agamemnon are at odds with each other the whole time which presents a problem for the domineering king, who needs Achilles’ army to win the war.

Scoop: Troy is a film that bears little resemblance to anything classic, least of all The Iliad. Even less than the resemblance of O Brother, Where Art Thou to The Odyssey. Sure, all the major players are in attendance: Achilles and Hector; Menelaus and Paris; Priam and Agamemnon; Ajax and Odysseus. But the film plays out like someone in Hollywood summarized the Cliffs Notes of Homer’s epic poem. All the important plot points are touched on, the one-on-one battles between Hector and Ajax, Hector and Achilles, Paris and Menelaus are highlighted, but there the similarities end.

It’s probably not fair to criticize the film for failing to be a faithful adaptation of the original epic as I do not believe that was ever the intention of the film. After all, they have not titled it Homer’s The Iliad and they very carefully note that the film is merely “inspired by” Homer’s work. Taking that into account, it seems clear that the filmmakers have simply taken a classical epic as a jumping-off point to tell what they believe is a fascinating story with interesting human characters striving to accomplish god-like feats. They were right to see the story as such, yet somehow they have watered it down and transformed these characters into cardboard cutouts.

I might say that David Benioff’s screenplay focuses only on the simplest aspects of each character, reducing them to one-dimensionality. But that’s not what he’s done. Instead he has changed some of them completely. Achilles, as performed by Brad Pitt, has become soul-searching. Achilles should be painted as a larger than life hero, with strength and courage incomprehensible to anyone but the gods (who are entirely neglected in this story). The first problem is in the casting of Pitt, an actor who I believe has matured and done some fine work in recent years, but is no Achilles. For that matter, he is also no Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas. He does not possess the stature necessary to play a mythical hero of such grandeur. Much to Pitt’s credit, however, he brings a tremendous physicality to the role. His body is in prime condition and the movements he executes in the battles are an exquisite sight to behold.

The rest of the casting, with the notable exception of Peter O’Toole as the Trojan King, is acceptable if somewhat uninspiring. Orlando Bloom fits the part of the pretty-boy ladies man; Eric Bana is suitable as leader of the Trojan army; Brian Cox chews up the scenery as the blustery Agamemnon; Sean Bean doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Odysseus, but he piqued my curiosity enough that I’d pay to see him play the starring role in The Odyssey, should they make it. But Peter O’Toole, ah yes! Here is an actor who shows up to work. I can not imagine it is easy to be an actor forced to recite wooden dialogue. That is why many seemingly bad performances are actually the result of bad writing. O’Toole, on the other hand, does a marvelous job with what he is given. His is the only character with any true humanity. He is the only actor who brings real pathos to the story.

One of the biggest problems I had with the film – and this is a problem in the screenplay, the direction and the performance by Diane Kruger – is the way Helen has been changed into a soulful 21st century woman. She is in this thing with Paris for love, for better or for worse. In The Iliad, Helen eventually becomes disdainful of Paris and resents his cowardice, his unwillingness to fight. This Helen of Troy loves Paris all the more because he does not want to fight, because she knows she can depend on him to always be there for her. I swear she almost puts it in those exact words. When Paris has been beaten by Menelaus in his duel of honor, he knows it and crawls to Hector, hanging on his ankle. This should be a moment when the audience cringes. Paris should be castigated for such behavior. In the world of Ancient Greece he certainly would have been. Director Wolfgang Petersen wants to invoke a modern sensibility into this world and I’m afraid it just doesn’t work.

Petersen has thrown together a fine looking film and his direction of the battle sequences is often masterful, particularly the one-on-one duels. Unlike most films that rely heavily on CGI effects, they are almost seamless here. I very often could not distinguish the difference between physical objects and armies and those that were computer generated. Finally, I must give credit to Petersen for having the courage to allow his international cast to speak with their own accents rather than have everyone don phony English accents. That was truly refreshing, but when that’s the best thing you can say about a film…

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