Based on the epic poem The Iliad by Greek historian Homer, Troy is two parts Cliff's Notes, one part Hollywood beefcake and one part WrestleMania. Which isn't the world's worst formula for a summer blockbuster. If only the film had resisted the urge to contemporize, to contextualize and to psychoanalyze its entire cast of characters.
Surely you remember the basic story from lit class: Three thousand years ago (give or take a century), Paris, the prince of Troy, kidnaps the luscious Helen of Sparta and spirits her across the Mediterranean to his well-walled hometown. Angry king Agamemnon sends a thousand ships, led by head ass-kicker Achilles, to get her back. Everybody fights and there's a big wooden horse in the end.
In the tale's current Hollywood iteration, written by David Benioff (The 25th Hour) and directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One), Agamemnon (Brian Cox, chewing scenery like Chicklets) is an avaricious land-grabber, eager to use Helen's kidnapping as an excuse to invade Troy. Paris (Lord of the Rings' hottie Orlando Bloom) is a romantic wuss who puts a little nookie (babelicious but blank German model Diane Kruger) ahead of his kingdom's welfare. Achilles (Brad Pitt, champing at the bit to show off his newly buff bod) is an angst-ridden warrior who hates his uncaring king, but loves the brotherhood of his fellow soldiers. Then, of course, there's Hector (Eric Bana, formerly of The Hulk), a conflicted prince of Troy torn by loyalties to his country and love for his reckless younger brother. Brooding outweighs fighting by a factor of at least three to one here.
Introspection is not a trait typically demonstrated by heroes of Greek drama. The monumentally clever, stupid, brave things they do simply don't stand up to logic or psychology. It's like applying principals of physics to the powers of Superman. You're wasting your time. Considering this story has stuck around for at least three millennia, maybe there's a reason not to tinker with the formula.
On the other hand, Troy does look great, with splashy costumes and impressive setpieces aplenty. This is what grossly overbloated Hollywood budgets were built for. When it boils down to the one-on-one battles, Troy roars to life. With, for example, the colossal clash between Achilles and Hector, Troy captures the look and feel of an epic myth. Unfortunately, the film keeps trying to humanize its heroes. Whenever people open their mouths, everything grinds to a halt quicker than a one-wheeled chariot. That other recent historical epic, Gladiator, succeeded because it kept things simple. Joaquin Phoenix: bad guy. Russell Crow: good guy looking for revenge. Troy muddies the water with a dozen major characters, too many subplots and a whole lot of standing around talking. The film is just under three hours in length, but sitting in the theater you'd swear it was a mere 163 minutes.
The cast certainly looks good with their short skirts and oiled abs. But nobody seems even slightly Mediterranean. There's never a moment in which hunky Brad Pitt could be mistaken for anything other than hunky Brad Pitt. He clips his “r”s in a wan attempt to sound a little like his British/Scottish/Australian compatriots. But I just didn't buy him as the most war-weary warrior in the whole of ancient Greece. Which is kind of a shame. When he's got a sword in his hand, Pitt is magnificent–a balletic blur of muscle and movement. Physically, he's astounding. But when Peter O'Toole shows up, proving he's still alive and gifting the film with its one moment of truly powerhouse acting, it only points up the flaws in Pitt's casting.
By reducing the legendary battle of Troy to a routine, special-effects-filled action movie and by humanizing the personalities involved, the filmmakers have missed out on the mythic action, the oversized emotions and the towering tragedies that make up a heroic legend. If you're buying a ticket for the beefcake or the bloodletting, you'll get your money's worth. If you're looking for a classic, go to the library.