on May 14, 2004 by Wade Major
Anyone still basking in the post-Oscar afterglow of "Gladiator" and wondering how the great "sword & sandal" epics of yore ever fell out of favor to begin with will find their $200 million answer in "Troy," a horribly misguided throwback to the worst such pictures of the '50s and '60s.

Reportedly "inspired" by Homer's "The Iliad" (with Shakespeare's "Troilus & Cressida" and Virgil's "The Aeneid" also seemingly tapped but not credited), "Troy" tells the familiar story of the Trojan War, which began circa 1200 B.C. when a pair of Trojan princes--Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom)--traversed the Aegean to pay a visit to King Menelaus of Sparta (Brendan Gleeson) as envoys on behalf of their father, King Priam (Peter O'Toole). The lusty, immature Paris, however, takes more of an interest in Menelaus' seraphic wife Helen (German actress Diane Kruger), whom he beds, then secretly whisks back to Troy, effectively turning their peace mission into a "piece" mission. Enraged, Menelaus solicits his megalomaniacal brother, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), to assemble the various Greek armies he's steadily been consolidating under his control and help him retrieve his bride. Drooling at the chance to add the mighty Troy to his conquests, Agamemnon opportunistically agrees and the proverbial "thousand ships" are launched to settle the score.

The wild card in all of this, of course, is the mighty warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt), who is here depicted as a kind of Grecian James Dean--an arrogant, bronzed and flaxen-haired gigolo who fights not out of loyalty to Agamemnon (whom he dislikes) but for glory and honor. Achilles joins the fight--encouraged by his pal Odysseus (aka Ulysses, played by Sean Bean)--but to what extent the Greeks can depend on his whole-hearted participation, no one (except the audience) really knows.

Troy Since coming to Hollywood more than 20 years ago, director Wolfgang Petersen has increasingly shed his acute European instincts in favor of Hollywood studio sensibilities, a transition that sadly seems to have apexed with "Troy." It's almost inconceivable that this banal, slapdash saga was engineered by the same man who forged the claustrophobic, character-driven brilliance of "Das Boot." Bloated and bursting at the seams with theme park pageantry, kitschy costumes, laughably windswept coiffures and hokey computer-generated military clashes that make those in "The Lord of the Rings" look like skirmishes, "Troy" wallows in the kind of showy excess that would have offended even Cecil B. DeMille. It's a strange miscalculation for a film that ostensibly seeks to present a more rooted-in-reality take on events by stripping away all vestiges of mythology. Gone is any mention or indication of Achilles' or Helen's supernatural origins, Achilles' battlefield invulnerability (or the vulnerability of his heel) or even the calculated meddling of the Gods in the affairs of men. Instead, it's the calculated meddling of Hollywood executives, marketing mavens and overeager filmmakers that takes hold, dragging the nearly three-hour picture into a hole from which it is never able to escape.

Homer, to his credit, never attempted to tell the entire 10-year saga of the Trojan war (which here only lasts a few weeks), nor did he include the fabled tale of the wooden horse. His focus was on a particular episode near the end of the war that culminated with the legendary clash between Achilles and Hector. Not surprisingly, that brief but rousing engagement is the film's best scene, offering a frustrating glimpse of what a more intelligent, faithful "Troy" might have been.

If Petersen is out of his element in directing such a picture, screenwriter David Benioff is catastrophically out of his league in writing it. Never able to make the disparate pieces coalesce into a satisfying story, Benioff tries to cover for his inadequacies by piling on the kind of silly pseudo-classical dialogue that more often ends up as fodder for unintentional laughter. That doesn't stop the actors from trying--each of them wrestles with the dialogue in his or her own way--but none are ever on the same page, or, for that matter, in the same script. Lovers Bloom and Kruger mostly just pose for the camera, Gleeson and O'Toole struggle valiantly with limited success while Cox aims for high camp and generally pulls it off. Though he looks the part, Pitt is predictably miscast and never really meshes with his more classically-trained colleagues. Only the very impressive Bana comes through with flying colors, an astonishing achievement considering the caliber of the rest of the cast.

Depending on how much of their investment they're able to recoup, Warner Bros. can take some consolation in knowing that they're not the first to bungle such a picture. Previous efforts--from Alexander Korda's "lost" 1927 silent film "The Private Life of Helen of Troy" to Robert Wise's unwieldy 1955 "Helen of Troy" to the recent television "Helen of Troy" miniseries--have all been equally ham-fisted, each falling prey to the misguided belief that a populist action-adventure yarn could be distilled from classical mythology. It may be a pipe dream to hope that the next filmmaker to get bitten by the "Troy" bug will realize the folly of such ambitions and actually do it right… but audiences must have their dreams, too. Starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Diane Kruger, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Brendan Gleeson and Peter O'Toole. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by David Benioff. Produced by Wolfgang Petersen, Diana Rathbun and Colin Wilson. A Warner Bros. release. Period Epic. Rated R for graphic violence and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 163 min

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