Good but not great, Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” is a $200 million star-driven rewrite of Homer’s “The Illiad.”
Brad Pitt is the star, and the rewrite was necessary to beef up his character: the obstinate, nearly unbeatable Greek warrior Achilles. Pitt has clearly been working out; he looks glorious in his helmet and armor. You never doubt that this Achilles, with his killer abs and flowing blonde hair, would be the center of attention in any conflict.
Still, what you’re likely to remember most vividly from the film are three other performances: Brian Cox as the wily, arrogant Greek monarch Agamemnon, who loathes Achilles but also recognizes his value on the battlefield; Peter O’Toole as Priam, the eloquently melancholy king of Troy; and Eric Bana as Hector, Priam’s noble son, who clearly deserves a better fate than the gods have thrust upon him.
Trouble is, Priam has another son, the younger, callower Paris (Orlando Bloom), who plays into Agamemnon’s warmongering ways by stealing Helen (Diane Kruger), the young wife of Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). This means war, of course, even though this Helen isn’t quite “the face that launched a thousand ships” of legend, and her romance with Paris is more like puppy lust than starcrossed devotion.
In this treatment of the story, written with some grace and wit by David Benioff (“The 25th Hour”), wispy Helen and boyish Paris are guilt-ridden pawns, and the real drama lies in the way the kings and their warriors manipulate the situation. Bana’s Hector, thrust into the middle of the royal mess they’ve created, comes off as the most sympathetic character.
As a result, the battle scenes in which he plays a major role are the most suspenseful; Hector’s showdown with Achilles is easily the film’s dramatic peak. All that business about the gift of a giant wooden horse plays like an afterthought, perhaps because the role of Cassandra, with her warning about Greeks bearing gifts, has been inexplicably dropped.
Pitt gives Achilles everything he’s got, but extending the role and softening it by emphasizing Achilles’ improbable love interest (Rose Byrne) doesn’t really work. More intriguing is Sean Bean’s Ulysses, whose character gains in stature as “Troy” progresses; there’s a hint that, if this film proves a hit, “The Odyssey” will be up next.
The R-rating is a bit of a mystery. “Troy” is never as violent as “The Passion of the Christ,” or as erotic as it should have been. Robert Wise’s faithful 1955 treatment of the story, “Helen of Troy,” had more of a romantic glow (still breathtaking is the scene in which Helen and Paris impulsively dive off a cliff to escape Menelaus). So, for that matter, did last year’s USA mini-series, also called “Helen of Troy.”
Bogged down for the past decade by imperfect American scripts (“Outbreak,” “Perfect Storm”), Petersen has struggled to regain the authority he established with his classic early-1980s German submarine drama, “Das Boot.” For all its uneven qualities, “Troy” is the best work he’s done since directing the 1993 Clint Eastwood thriller, “In the Line of Fire.”