The Boy Toys Of 'Troy'
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page C01
There's no doubt that "Troy" is Homeric, but the Homer in question seems not so much the blind poet of yore as the Homer named Simpson.
For the movie boasts that Homer's virtues: It means to please, it's good-hearted and lazy, it always takes the easy way out, and it wants you to like it. Its seas aren't wine-dark but Aspen-pale.
In short, what it lacks in classical rigor it makes up for in user-friendliness: It's a low-carb Iliad, easy on the achy-breaky feelings. Those depressing Greek dramatists who got all mopey about it -- Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, who chronicled the curses that befell Troy's conquerors Agamemnon and Menelaus and some of the others -- are, like, so 400 B.C. This $200 million baby lets most of the good guys go home free (even if the home is the not-yet-founded city of Rome) and sends the bad guys straight to bad-guy hell.
Is this a crime against a classic? Hardly. Each age, after all, diddles with the classics to fit its own needs. When Homer (the Greek, not the 'toon) first started singing his songs several hundred years after Troy fell, he tailored the tales to fit the reigning cultural mandate: The gods must be honored.
The screenwriter David Benioff is still sucking up to the gods, except that the gods are now 18-year-old boys and girls whom he wants to go to the mall tonight. His reigning cultural mandate, therefore: Brad Pitt must not be killed until the last reel. Of course, that entails moving Achilles' death back from its proper placement in the melody. But so what? Who's counting?
So the first thing that must be said of "Troy" is that it is not, as many feared, ridiculous. Not even Pitt, in his little tinfoil skirt and sandals and his pipsqueaky Brit accent, is ridiculous, even if the god he worships would seem to be Nautilus the Machine instead of Zeus the All-Powerful. Far from great, but much farther from awful, "Troy" offers several popcorn buckets' worth of good old-fashioned time at the movies.
If you don't know the story already, you shouldn't be reading this review, you should be in school. Needless to say, Benioff shrinks the 10 years of war into what feels like about 10 days, but he hits all the high spots.
On Monday, or so it seems, the Trojan prince Paris (beautiful Orlando Bloom) steals Helen (Diane Kruger) from Sparta, enraging her husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), who seeks the aid of his brother and fellow king, Agamemnon, and the other Greeks. They sail the Aegean to the mighty walls of Troy on Tuesday, arriving that evening at the cocktail hour, and do battle with the Trojans most of Wednesday and all of Thursday. Achilles (Pitt) fights beautifully, then has a snit when his war trophy, the beautiful Briseis (Rose Byrne), is appropriated by burly old Yosemite Sam look-alike Agamemnon (Brian Cox). He gets all pouty and hides in his tent.
But on Friday, his cousin Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), wearing Ach's armor, gets whacked by the King of Troy's other son, Hector (Eric Bana), so on Saturday, Achilles goes against Hector. By Sunday . . . well, you know where this is heading. It's over, the topless towers of Ilium are toppled by the following Thursday and everyone still alive gets home in time for the oracle's announcement: "In breaking news, Troy fell today. Tape at 11."
One decision Benioff and director Wolfgang Petersen have made is to secularize and politicize the story. There are no campy cutaways to Olympus (". . . and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Zeus"). This is just a story of a war, fought for passion (by Menelaus) but really for power (by Agamemnon) and survival (by Hector); only Achilles still seems godly, because of his beauty and his grace and his eerily superb combat skills and his lust for eternal fame.
Petersen is an old pro. His is a narrative sensibility, and he's capable of keeping the story moving and subplots straight. He's got an eye for beauty too, though mainly of the male kind. He so loves the image of the helmeted, husky warrior boys, bulgy of bicep, lean of loin, aglow of sweat, eyes feral and fierce in the slits of their art-deco steel pots, that he hits it over and over and over. Many a gay man will consider this the ultimate date movie.
But Petersen also knows war and its cost. After all, he broke through to a worldwide audience with one of the best, "Das Boot," almost 25 years ago. Faced with the problem of mounting a believable Bronze Age war, he realized how battle then depended on athletic skills: hand-eye coordination, strength, agility. Thus he's chosen what might be called an overarching athletic metaphor for battle. These are less warriors than jocks. They're graceful, fluid leapers and feinters, not lumbering, armor-clad, hacking behemoths. In the early going, Achilles dispatches an enemy by juking him out of the paint, sailing by and essentially slam-dunking (a sword) on him -- well, in him. He shoots, he scores.
Pitt prospers under this system, because so much of the fighting is based on Yank-style athletic moves. In particular, he is offered as a spear-chucker of world-class magnitude, and when he throws, he looks great because unlike all the snippy football-booting Brits and Aussies around him, he's thrown a baseball about 10,000 times. He looks like a 20-game winner in any pre-steroid world, even if the computer somewhat amplifies the power, velocity and accuracy he applies to a warheaded-shaft.
The battles themselves are more like scrums or interior line play. Petersen loves to race his camera across the battlefield as advancing tides of Trojan and Greek infantry surge closer. He concentrates on that moment of impact when the two lines pile up against each other in dense heaps of struggling human flesh. One can't help but see Trojans against, say, Buckeyes instead of Greeks. (Though most of the Buckeyes probably were Greeks, from the tribes of, say, Sigma Chi, Phi Delt or Omega Psi Phi . . . but that is a different story.)
The climactic faceoff watches Hector and Achilles go at it. It's well done, even if their sword work has been coached by someone well-versed in Asian martial arts and therefore has a Japanese samurai feel to it, with a lot of dramatic posing between the exchange of strokes. It's extremely stylized, driven forward by a heavy-percussion score, beautiful, thrilling and somehow unreal. Best movie swordfight: Chuck Heston vs. Sophia Loren's champion in "El Cid," all muscle, grit, guts and blood. Second best: Kirk Douglas vs. Woody Strode, "Spartacus." Third: Rathbone vs. Flynn, "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Fourth: this one.
As for Helen, she's played by newcomer Kruger without making much of an impression. Is this the face that launched a thousand ships? Opinions will vary, of course, but I'd rate hers as a 457-ship face. Now Charlize Theron, there's a mug worth a thousand ships. Forrestal-class carriers to boot. But that too is a different story.
I liked some of the less obvious touches. For one thing, the film represents what to me seems the best use of computer-generated imagery. That is to say, computer-generated imagery you don't notice. Clearly behind the 1,000 extras in the foreground are 400,000 extras on a hard drive, but they never have that shiny tone of unreality that marked some more obvious uses of the technology, as in last week's "Van Helsing." (Alas, Troy itself is unimpressive; it looks like it was downloaded from the Ancient Cities R Us Web site.)
Another nice trick: When Odysseus (Sean Bean) gets around to thinking up the famous horse play, Petersen (or his art director) has realized that you really couldn't build much of a horse on a beach (where the Greeks have set up their camp). So the horse isn't one of those sculpted things 70 feet tall with sleek flanks and a stylized snout, looking for a museum foyer in which to stable. No, it's a kind of crude, bumpy horse, put together of driftwood, gull feathers and spit.
What is missing from "Troy" is something probably only us dinosaurs will lament: its core. There's really very little darkness in this Troy, for all the slaughter. This tale was the origin of the tragic sensibility, and neither Benioff nor Petersen shows much awareness of that. They don't get much, for example, out of the fate of Hector. Bana, a fine and likable actor, is too young for this role, as a beat-up old warrior with a new family who realizes that happily-ever-after isn't in the cards. Hector's really the emotional linchpin of the story: Unlike Achilles, he's not half-god, he hasn't been dipped in anything except dust and sweat. So when he fights the half-god Achilles, he knows he must die. He's any damned GI facing an objective and knowing that he's not coming back from this one and that his reward is going to be a bronze nameplate in a park on a piece of marble that pigeons call a bathroom.
That soldier's melancholy is only hinted at, but Petersen, like Benioff in search of the powerful youth market, spends more time with western civ's greatest twit, the party boy Paris, pale and beautiful, who loves to start wars but lets his poor older brother finish them. Maybe Petersen will sell more tickets that way, but Bloom's Paris is the least compelling character. He's not a soldier, he's not a man, he's not a father, he's not a god. He's a punk.
Troy (165 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for battle violence and nudity.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Classic good looks: Brad Pitt manages to keep his Achilles' heel intact till the last reel.
(Murray Close -- Warner Bros. Pictures Via AP)