Director Wolfgang Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff take Homer's epic poem "The Iliad" for the film's inspiration and the skeleton of its plot, but no one will mistake Troy for literature, or even a classic film. Yet as both an action flick and an Oscar-hunting cinematic saga, Troy plays it smart and straight-faced at most opportunities. Troy's attempt to transfer the 3,200-plus-year-old events to the 21st-century cineplex falters at the end, but the film provides eye-candy thrills when the irresistible force of the Greek army meets the immovable object of the Trojan gates.
A battlefield prologue strategically introduces the ancient setting and timeless rivalries. King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) has unified the disparate, quarrelsome Greek warlords under his rule, with the kingdom of Thessaly as the last remaining holdout. When Agamemnon's army faces Thessaly's forces, Cox lustily embodies megalomaniacal confidence and cocky humor.
The kings declare that single combat, not a costly skirmish, will decide the outcome, and though Thessaly picks a champion roughly the size of Crete, the Greeks have unparalleled fighter Achilles (Brad Pitt) on their side. In a computer-assisted combat move, Achilles floats like a butterfly and stabs like a surgeon -- he leaps into the air and his sword dips into his opponent, like he's struck nothing more than pudding.
A touchy, arrogant loose cannon, Achilles chafes under Agamemnon's authority. Pitt doesn't embody the wrath and pride of mythology's mightiest warrior, but Petersen shrewdly uses the actor's golden-boy celebrity. When Achilles sits out battles to spite his king, he's not too far from an overpaid movie actor sulking in his trailer. Pitt's performance lacks the ingenuity of Johnny Depp's buccaneer-as-rock-star in Pirates of the Caribbean, but at least he can maintain a fierce expression as long as necessary.
Petersen's finest film remains the U-boat drama Das Boot, and at times he gives Troy the same kind of men-at-war dynamics. In Sparta, Agamemnon's brother Menelaus salutes his Trojan guests with the bawdy toast, "May the gods keep the wolves in this hills and the women in our beds!" But his timing could be better: His trophy wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), has already hooked up with Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom), and they elope the next morning.
Benioff's script strives to stay consistent with Homer while making the roles sympathetic to modern audiences. Helen and Paris become not notorious adulterers but sincere lovers, anguished that their romance might incite the rivalries of nations. Trojan prince Hector (The Hulk's Eric Bana) emerges as the noblest yet humblest role, but he may have too much integrity, defending Paris even at the risk of war. Hector would rather lose honorably than win dirty.
Troy crafts more compelling characters than Ridley Scott's glossy Gladiator, another contemporary throwback to the old-fashioned sword-and-sandal picture. Troy also offers panoramic moments that can scarcely fit onto a screen. The Greek fleet looks like every ship ever built, and when the Trojans watch the Greek army approach, the troops stretch from one end of the horizon to the other. In a thrilling battle reminiscent of the opening of Saving Private Ryan, Achilles captures the Trojan beach practically single-handed.
At times, Petersen puts the audience in the action through clever details. When inexperienced Paris fights seasoned Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), we see the nervous Trojan's perspective through the gaps in his helmet. But as Troy marches to its conclusion, it suffers from the big budget bloat-for-bloat's-sake of a Cecil B. DeMille movie, especially after the Trojans discover a big wooden horse laying around.
Troy takes some outright liberties with Homer, so even if you know "The Iliad," the film yields suspense and surprises. Characters die out of sequence and the siege unfolds in less than a month, not more than a decade. The Greek gods never appear and might not even exist. And Trojan captive Briseis (Rose Byrne), originally little more than the spur for Achilles' feud with Agamemnon, here becomes Achilles' full-fledged love interest. At the climax, an unlikely race to "save the girl" overshadows the fate of Troy itself.
As Trojan King Priam, Peter O'Toole retains his piercing stare and velvety voice, but the actor seems so frail you wonder if he's strapped to an ironing board to stay upright. Sean Bean brings charisma and humor to the role of Odysseus, but gets stiffed for screen time. Ditto for Tyler Mane, who looks every inch the part of the massive berserker Ajax.
In Troy, the harsh realities of war undercut ideals at every turn. For every stirring speech and dream of glory, we see an agonizing death, a mournful loved one, or a body on a funeral pyre. Troy never matches, or even approximates, the severe poetry of its source material, but it doesn't trivialize it, either. By refusing to glorify war, Troy merits at least one salute.