Combustible Celluloid
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With: Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Diane Kruger, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Brendan Gleeson, Peter O'Toole, Julie Christie, Saffron Burrows, Rose Byrne, Diane Kruger
Written by: David Benioff, loosely adapted from Homer's writings
Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
MPAA Rating: R for graphic violence and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 163
Date: 05/09/2004

Troy (2004)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Heel of the Century

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Film genres evolve according to the times. The Western moves from Stagecoach to Unforgiven and the musical sloughs off Top Hat in favor of Chicago. Meanwhile, comedies grow more vulgar and continue to push the envelope.

But for some reason, the epic has not budged. With the exception of replacing huge numbers of extras with computer blips, the epic follows the exact same formula that audiences thrilled to in the 1950s and 60s. Movies as clumsy and hackneyed as Titanic and Gladiator still inspire the same unabashed awe and praise that Cecil B. DeMille and Nicholas Ray earned in their time -- as if all other modern movies are dwarfed and rendered invisible by their sheer size.

The new epic Troy isn't a bad film, nor is it particularly good. It's merely uninspired, uninteresting and unimportant. As the legendary warrior Achilles, Brad Pitt stands tall above the film's other elements. Insubordinate, petulant and arrogant, he's everything the film is not. But, considering the pathetic product Hollywood has in store for us for the rest of 2004, it could be one of the year's top award-getters.

Loosely based on Homer's The Iliad, Troy centers on the battle between the enormous Greek army and the as-yet-unconquered Troy. All hell breaks loose when a Trojan soldier, Paris (Orlando Bloom), woos the Greek beauty Helen (Diane Kruger) and spirits her away back to Troy. The Greek army, including the reluctant Achilles, subsequently attacks.

And so we have battle scene after battle scene almost exactly like all the other battle scenes ever made. When Bloom picks up a bow and arrow during a late battle, you'll most likely wish you were watching The Lord of the Rings again.

Director Wolfgang Petersen rams his "immortality" theme down our throats. Apparently these characters, and especially Achilles, perform every task so that their names will live on in the history books. Why or how they would know this is another question; no one ever reads about or mentions any heroes that lived before their time.

Moreover, we're treated to a wailing score by the talentless James Horner that sounds too much like Peter Gabriel's 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ music, plus an earful of stilted, proper English, mostly expository, dialogue that no actor in the world sounds good reading. ("You speak of war as if it's a game!")

Brian Cox, as Agamemnon, understands the appeal of these movies and tries to throw as much camp into his performance as possible, but Petersen stifles him at every turn. Or almost: Cox lets out a wheezing laugh in one scene that almost brings the film to life for a fleeting moment.

And Pitt has clearly worked like a madman for his role. He looks amazing -- especially for a 40 year-old -- and he moves like a balletic warrior. His fighting has a meaty poetry to it, a graceful awareness of limbs and angles and movement. Unfortunately, Petersen steps in again to kill the momentum, using trendy fast cutting to chop up the battle scenes into mush.

Petersen is a reasonably decent director who depends on a good script and very specifically defined heroes and villains as well as definite spatial parameters. He earned an Oscar nomination for his 1981 film Das Boot, creating suspense within a vicious, claustrophobic atmosphere on board a submarine. His In the Line of Fire (1993) squared off Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich as hero and villain on equal footing, and Air Force One (1997) deftly combined the two: a hero and villain operating within a confined space. But with claptrap material like The Perfect Storm (2000), Petersen can't function any better than the lowliest hack.

If Petersen and the screenplay -- by David Benioff (25th Hour) of all people -- had given them any leeway, actors like the legendary Peter O'Toole, as Priam, the king of Troy, might have been allowed to shine. It simply hurts to compare this O'Toole performance to the one in Lawrence of Arabia.

As for the rest of the cast, Julie Christie turns up in a useless cameo as Achilles' mother (good genes there), Brendan Gleeson plays Menelaus, the wronged Greek king whose bad marriage to Helen causes the whole mess, Eric Bana plays Paris' brother Hector and Sean Bean plays Odysseus, whose part gets a lot bigger in the next part of the story. They all do their best against considerable odds.

The question remains: why didn't these filmmakers try to come up with something different? The answer is that no one cares. The studio knows that the audience -- and especially the Oscar voters -- will adore the same pompous epic over and over again, year after year. And until somebody gets wise, it's easier to follow the old rules and not to question. If only Achilles had been in charge.

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