Review: “Troy”

Let’s get the two burning comparisons out of the way – “Troy” is not “The Iliad” or “Gladiator”. Sure, this is ‘inspired’ by Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, and it does follow the basic elements (girl stolen by whiny brat, hubbie pissed, gets bro to declare war, the two famous warriors on either side duelling, etc.).

Yet so many things are different, whether it be the removal of the gods; the heterosexualising of Achilles; characters who never met in text hopping into bed on screen; people dying for whole different reasons; the wrong people dying; character motivational and position changes; stealing the first third of the sequel “The Odyssey”; etc., that it shouldn’t be compared to the Iliad because as adaptations go, this one is loose to say the least.

Comparisons are also going to be drawn to “Gladiator,” the solid and quite superb but slightly overrated Ridley Scott movie. Its only real weakness was John Logan’s hokey script that was thankfully saved by last minute re-writes from William Nicholson and Scott. Scott’s superb helming skills helped make some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie sound not only believable, but at times strike with great resonance.

“Troy” on the other hand whilst based on a far more famous and frankly much better story, has been put in the hands of scribe David Benioff and Director Wolfgang Petersen, the former having penned one so-so movie (“25th Hour”) and given the far tougher task of adapting Homer’s gargantuan tale, the later having done some great fun entertainment pieces (“Air Force One,” “Perfect Storm,” “Outbreak”) but isn’t known for being a visionary filmmaker like Scott.

The result? Well it’s no classic but “Troy” does prove to be a damn good film overall – certainly no hallmark of the genre, but a surprising return to old fashioned filmmaking that’s jarringly different from the empty whiz bang a minute visuals of the likes of “Van Helsing”. Even “Gladiator” tailored its story to be more suited to a modern day audience, and yet short of the visual effects, “Troy” is very much like the old 50’s sword and sandals dramas complete with their benefits and faults – including their relaxed sense of pacing and somewhat extra helping of cheese.

The most common reaction you’ll find with this film from viewers I think will be “well the first half was quite boring, but the second half was cool” which is very true. The first hour of the movie is just like a bad TNT mini-series, the whole setup, the beach landings, and even the first attack on Troy itself just doesn’t click. Maybe it’s just that the CG army fighting thing has been done to death and much better, maybe it’s that this is the most truncated bit of the story with things rushed through pretty fast. Hard to tell but essentially short of a cool little Achilles fight with a huge guy, there isn’t anything even vaguely memorable (it’s almost like that first hour of “Pearl Harbor,” ie. who cares).

Then, just when you’ve settled in and are ready to get some shut eye, it changes. A nighttime battle comes with an ingenious idea, the character interactions become better, the dull large scale army fighting is replaced with some rather intense one-on-one face offs between major characters, even the blaring score which reeked of amateurish and overdone orchestral pieces early on starts taking on new and interesting sounds. The fated duels, the father-son dynamics, the horse, it all begins working and gets better throughout with the middle 45 minutes a solid movie and the last hour or so as good as anything this genre has ever produced including “Gladiator”.

Certain elements of this can’t be faulted, especially production design and costuming which all round is varied and excellent (I want some toga nightwear). The Trojan Horse sequence and attack is a little rushed but otherwise perfect, the Hector/Achilles dynamic and its ultimate conclusion is spot on, most of the supporting cast is tops and play their roles superbly, even the irritating score which is overblown like no-one’s business still has some memorable pieces (the approaching Greek army scene, the Hector/Paris fight, the final attack, etc.).

The brutality and gore of the film in both intent and visual are just right with enough to earn the title of a war movie but never too gratuitous. For the gals and gay guys, there’s loads of near nudity from the male stars so those eager to see Brad’s rippling biceps or Orlando’s glistening boy pecs with his oversized wine red nipples, you’re in luck as this glorifies the male body to no end. Hell, the person who organised the set arrangements to hide genitalia should get a medal – there’s more exposure of that bare skin region between the navel and the top of the pubes (Orlando, Eric & Brad all have this shot at least once) in this than any major studio movie in a long time. The girls in comparison are clad or shot shoulders up, so no heaving bosoms lads.

So what didn’t work? At 165 minutes this is one long movie and the kind those not into this genre may fall asleep in, the languishing first hour also doesn’t help. Whilst the last hour and a half rocked in the action scenes and most drama bits, some subplots just didn’t click – most notably the Brisies and Patroclus pieces. The former becomes a blubbering mess who spends most of her time screwing Achilles (even though it’s not part of the old story) and the latter has been reduced to a raising my cousin/protege story which seems trite and cliched. It makes one wonder that if Achilles and Patroclus properly been portrayed as lovers like most have interpreted from Oxford scholars to Shakespeare himself, it probably would’ve lended more credibility and weight to the actions Achilles takes in the film.

Performances wise the best come from the least publicised funnily enough. Eric Bana’s portrayal as the heroic but troubled family man and fighter Hector is excellent, Sean Bean is simply ‘cool’ as the amiable rogue Odysseus (would love to see a take on “The Odyssey” with him in the part), Peter O’ Toole lends a perfect sense of gravitas to Priam, and Brian Cox is deliciously over the top as Agammemnon. Even smaller roles like Saffron Burrows, Diane Kruger, Brendan Gleeson, etc. all add to this film’s strength. The stumbling blocks though are Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. The boys look stunning no question, but neither are great actors although Pitt at least seems to be trying.

So Paris was a whiny, conceited little coward and Bloom does play him like that but it can’t hide the fact that at several times throughout the film, the boy just doesn’t have the skills of his admittedly far more experienced brethren. Bloom has yet to fully give a solid dramatic performance and this is no exception. The one scene he does which I and many around seem to like is one which is him basically being beaten to a pulp in the film’s first great mano-e-mano fight.

Achilles on the other hand is portrayed as a super skilled warrior mercenary that’s only concerned with his reputation & that he’ll leave a mark on history. He’s an arrogant, in love with himself, son of a bitch who rightly is portrayed as essentially a bad guy in various versions of the tale. Yet here they try and make him sympathetic which just doesn’t particularly work well. There’s also the removal of all things immortal and magical about him, and while the ‘Achilles Heel’ does come into play, the whole point of it is lost and it takes away a certain edge the character had.

Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis DOES appear in one scene in the movie but there’s nothing magical about her – she’s just on the beach picking up shells and warning of the future (hell they don’t even mention her name). The Gods are always essential characters in any Greek mythological tale and yet whilst the likes of Apollo, Zeus, Poseidon, etc. are mentioned by name or in prayer, in this interpretation they have no influence on events. By taking them away the film does admittedly lose a whole other dimension to it and makes me yearn for something like “Clash of the Titans” which at least did the Gods right (Maggie Smith portrayed Thetis as a spiteful vindictive bitch with super powers, now THAT’s a real mother of Achilles).

All up I found I quite liked it, however it’s too dull and slow to be a crowd pleasing film and certainly aimed far more at adults than the teeny bopper audience it’s probably going to bring in. Purists might get quite upset about the many changes from the original story, and many fans will understandbly be disappointed by the fact that while it’s a good movie, it’s certainly not the classic it should’ve been if it had had a more skilled writing/directing team behind it. Still, even if you’re not familiar with the story it’s worth catching and remember that despite it’s all too long runtime and slightly yawn-inducing opening hour or so, it does pick up and become much better. Not what one would call a highlight of the Summer season, but it is a strong start to it.