“Troy”“Troy” has all the ingredients required for a Hollywood debacle. There is the matinee idol leading man playing an indestructible warrior with buffed bod and blond tresses. There is the sometimes clunky dialogue that tries to be true to the period but ends up producing occasional giggles. And there are the obligatory battle scenes, complete with impeccable costumes and designer weapons.
Indeed, “Troy” took its share of lumps from some critics. But really, it’s not as bad as all that. In fact, while it doesn’t deserve a place in the pantheon of ancient epics, it’s still a lot of fun to behold.
Under the skilled direction of Wolfgang Petersen, Brad Pitt plays Achilles, the most accomplished fighter in Greece. Unfortunately, he’s working under a boss he can’t stand, the treacherous Agamemnon (Brian Cox). When the wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), the King of Sparta, is stolen away by some visiting Trojans, Agamemnon gets his ire up also and sees it as an excuse to declare war on Troy and add that empire to his already bloated pile of possessions.
The story is rather predictable, but Petersen keeps the action moving, and the superb cast (Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom and Peter O’Toole round out the principle players) keeps this from sinking into the realm of camp. One drawback: The battles are depicted mostly through computer graphics, giving them the artificial grandeur of a video game rather than a look that oozes authenticity. But if you can get past that, it’s a rousing ride.
“Troy” is out in a two-disk widescreen edition DVD package. As usual, the first disk contains the feature. You might think Roger Pratt’s terrific cinematography would take a beating on a picture like this when reduced from big screen to small. But actually, the transition is smooth and the film looks wondrous.
The second disk has the bulk of the extras. It isn’t overflowing, but what is here is worthwhile. Two featurettes talk about the making of the film and the use of special effects. The most interesting mini-doc, however, is “From Ruins to Reality,” about how the ruins of ancient Troy were uncovered, and how the production designers created the look of the film. Given that “Troy” was loosely based on “The Iliad,” it would have been helpful if the DVD had even more historical information about the movie and the tales that inspired it. But otherwise, this package does its duty.
Warner Home Video, $29.95
“Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”
Jack Johnson was one of the greatest heavyweight fighters in history. He is also one of the most obscure — no fault of his, merely because his rise and fall in America occurred during a shameful period after emancipation when racism was not only still widespread but arguably at its most virulent, and most Americans today would probably rather forget the treatment he received.
Johnson fought for some 14 extremely difficult and humiliating years before, at age 30, he was finally given a shot at the title. Before that, no holder of the title would give him an opportunity, because none wanted to take a chance on being the first white to lose it to a black man.
But after Johnson whipped every contender, black or white, for years, the public grew eager to see how he would do against the white champion. The newspapers of the day began a drumbeat. Johnson himself campaigned hard, even following the champion to all corners of the country demanding a shot at the title.
Finally, Tommy Burns relented. The two met in Australia in 1908 in what was billed then as “The Fight of the Century,” the first time a black man and white man met for the heavyweight title. Of course, Burns was beaten soundly before a stunned all-white crowd.
That result created another drumbeat, this time for a fight between Johnson and the man regarded as the fiercest fighter in the world, Jim Jeffries, who had retired in 1905 to a farm in Burbank, Calif. Jeffries had also long vowed he would never fight a black man for the title. But he couldn’t resist a huge payday to come out of retirement.
On the Fourth of July, 1910 in Reno, Nev., before another all-white crowd in another “Fight of the Century,” Johnson toyed with and battered Jeffries, knocking him down for the first time ever in his career. Jeffries’ corner gave up in the 15th of 20 scheduled rounds. Afterward, Jeffries admitted: “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best.”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has created a splendid account of Johnson’s life, which was about a lot more than boxing. Johnson was outspoken, headstrong and independent (Samuel L. Jackson does his voice here) at a time when those qualities in African Americans were frowned upon in white society. He openly dated white women, even though it invited a great deal of trouble. At the time, he was the most prominent black man to defy the norm and lived life the way he wanted to live it. He was Jackie Robinson well before Jackie Robinson came along.
This two-disk DVD set from PBS Home Video, released by Paramount, contains the documentary itself, which is in two parts and runs almost four hours. But it never feels like four hours because every frame is fascinating. The second disk has a few extras, like a fine “making of” doc and some deleted scenes.
“Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” should be required viewing for any historians, amateur or professional. Be advised also that there is a companion book to the DVD, a biography written by Geoffrey C. Ward that contains documents like Johnson’s memoir from prison, where he spent a short stretch on a trumped-up charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
Paramount Home Video, $24.99