Necessity condenses the 10-year struggle into a few weeks, but Petersen honors its status as the greatest war the world has ever known by enlisting Hollywood’s greatest hunks. Chief among them is Pitt as Achilles, buffed and polished to a burnished bronze that could outshine his character’s mythic armor. Homer describes Achilles as a superbeing, brilliant, swift-footed and godlike — in battle, a lion on a rampage. Movies hesitate with heroes like this because in reality opponents wouldn’t be able to put up a fight, and there wouldn’t be any tension. In “Troy,” they don’t and there isn’t any. Achilles fells giants with all the effort of a high-five. He whirls through clusters of foes like a Ginsu salesman slivering zucchini. It’s thrilling, and for once a movie gets it right.
Achilles is extraordinary, but he’s not the kind of hero we’re used to. The Hollywood ideal that tempers such power with chivalric qualities like modesty and mercy is lost upon him. During the invasion of Troy, he keeps a smug look of surety etched across his face as he annihilates enemies, mocks his commanders and brags about how cool he is.
Humility is for losers like Hector. Eric Bana’s noble prince is Achilles’ mirror in the epic poem, and in the film he’s a direct opposite. He’s as fine a warrior, but a kind man who fights only to save his people. (We are told several times that arrogant Achilles fights only for glory.) Their differences set up a great confrontation, though audiences may pause at its implications. We’re urged to respect the good guy, but we can’t wait for the bad boy to whip up on him.
“Troy” glows with freshness, even as it tells one of the most dated stories of all. Petersen and Benioff have taken a winningly individualistic approach to many worn-out aspects of the action movie, restricting computer effects to inanimate objects and avoiding overused editing tricks like slow motion. Energy was directed to the large ensemble cast, featuring Peter O’Toole as the befuddled old Trojan king Priam, Brendan Gleeson as Helen’s jilted husband and the indie-film veteran Brian Cox in a wonderful turn as the duplicitous Greek king Agamemnon.
There are shortcomings to overlook. While undeniably beautiful, Helen acts more like a frightened schoolgirl than a “terrible beauty” who launched a thousand ships. And while the individual fight scenes are riveting, the cinematic language of mass hand-to-hand combat seems to have reached its zenith in Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” Any variation since is merely a look from a different direction.
These are minor quibbles, however, for a movie with great vision. One of the questions faced by any project like this is what to do with the supernatural, so prominent in the poem. Thankfully, “Troy” plays it down, avoiding the self-parody of a monster movie like “Lord of the Rings.” The film contains just enough mystery to rise above common experience. Gods and magic are limited to the imagination, and there is even a slight modernist tug between faith and technology. Such an element might seem out of place for Homer, but it carries the spirit of the source, which sought to echo its audience in song. Pope famously wrote that Homer makes us hearers. “Troy,” in its way, allows us to see. **** S
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