Remember 'Troy'

'Troy' is a typically mindless summer blockbuster, but it sure is a lot of fun

Director Wolfgang Petersen first became known to Americans as the director of Das Boot, a sympathetic look at a bunch of deep-sea Nazis. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won exactly that many, minus six.

Best Director was one of the awards it was up for, and it should have taken it. (Richard Attenborough won for Gandhi, which was a more monumental, but not necessarily better-directed film.) Sadly, Petersen would never again be nominated for the special bald-man statue, as he then did what many great German directors do after they first suckle on the silicone-tainted milk of the great breast of Hollywood: He started turning out dumbed-down drek for the maundering masses.

Who can blame him, really? Outbreak, In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, while suitably retarded, did rake in a lot of money. But all that wealth would not bring Petersen something that much lower-grossing filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein and Maya Deren will have: immortal fame.

Thus, Petersen makes Troy. It's a big-budget, dumbed-down, action-film version of The Iliad that will not bring Petersen eternal fame. But it's about eternal fame, and it basically says, "Hey, this eternal fame thing, it's not all it's cracked up to be." This may be the most expensive movie ever made out of pure spite. Good for you, Wolf!

On the other hand, it's a perfectly fun piece of spite. Petersen has condensed the nine-year Trojan War into a Cliffs Notes-length fortnight, but has still included most of the major events and characters.

Brad Pitt's shaved pectorals star as Achilles, greatest warrior and most highly paid actor among the Greeks. Pitt's Achilles is awesome, in a way totally unrelated to the standard notions of "acting." There's nothing in his performance that hints at simulation of reality. Instead, he invents and exaggerates a characterization based on the idea of a man who is only concerned with glory, honor and fighting.

As such, Pitt reduces his movements so much that when he does shake his head or turn his eyes to the right, it seems like a huge freaking deal. Again, not realism, but a sort of symbolic representation of the narrowness of Achilles' character is achieved. I think this won't appeal to people who are used to Stanislavsky-bred method actors emoting all over the screen, but it does hearken back to an older acting tradition that was ruthlessly and prematurely tossed aside with the advent of film.

On the other side of the battle (for those not familiar with the plot, I would direct you to your high school education, wherein you should find the whole story spelled out in excruciating detail) is Eric Bana as Hector. Hector is the only heroic character in Petersen's version, because, unlike Achilles, Hector isn't interested in fame or glory. He just cares about providing for his family and his city, and if that involves casting Dennis Quaid as the lead in Enemy Mine, well then, so be it.

Bana plays Hector in a more naturalistic vein, which fits the character and goes a long way toward redeeming his earlier performance as Bruce Banner in Green Crap Movie (released in the United States as The Hulk).

On the whole, the acting and fighting carry the day for Troy. Peter O'Toole is strangely haunting as King Priam--his sunken blue eyes peer out of his skeletal face with the intensity that comes only from being so close to death that you can actually see hell.

Brendan Gleeson, who's always good, keeps up his winning streak here with a wicked and furious version of the cuckolded Menelaus. Also excellent are the stunningly beautifully and surprisingly talented Saffron Burrows as Hector's wife, Andromache, and the painfully pretty Rose Byrne as Briseis, the temple virgin who is captured and then loved in a special adult manner by Achilles.

Which brings us to the downside: Helen is not so hot. Petersen casts his co-national Diane Kruger in the role, and her only qualification seems to be that she's blonde. Sure, Homer's Helen is blonde, but she also has a beauty capable of launching up to and including 1,000 ships. Kruger is pretty enough to get, say, 20 ships and a few dinghies launched, but definitely not a thousand.

She also can't act her way out of a leather sack. Her romantic scenes with Orlando Bloom as Paris are totally lacking in chemistry, which is weird, since every heterosexual woman I know seems to think Orlando Bloom is eminently forkable. (You know, that thing you do before spooning.)

Also surprisingly bad is Brian Cox as Agamemnon. Usually, I love Cox, but here, his stagey antics and overplaying just draw too much attention to the fact that he's Acting.

Though, frankly, he does not have a great script to work with. The best line comes early, when a young boy runs up to Achilles and tells him he needs to go fight a giant warrior. The boy says something like "I'd never fight such a man!" and Achilles shoots back, "That's why no one will remember your name." The rest of the movie reiterates that line about a zillion times, while pointing out that the whole fame-and-glory thing is pretty much good for nothing more than getting your ass killed with, like, 100 bronze-tipped spears.

In the end, though, the story trumps the script, and much fun is had without much thought being provoked. There are some glorious shots of hundreds of soldiers clashing, some amazing 1-on-1 battles, and lots of what the Greeks called "violence." It's the perfect summer movie in that it keeps you entertained in an air-conditioned space for three hours, without burdening you with too much thinking. If you compare and contrast that with the experience of actually reading The Iliad, I think you'll find that Petersen's version--while not a thing of eternal glory--is much more fun.

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