Warner Bros. // 2004 // 162 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // January 10th, 2005
This war will never be forgotten, nor will the heroes who fight in it.
The great thing about writers who have been dead for 3000 years is that they don't demand royalties or any degree of creative control over a project.
Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, the anger which caused so many sorrows to the Greeks. It sent to Hades many souls of heroes and gave their bodies to be food of dogs and birds. So the design of Zeus was worked out from the time when, first, Agamemnon, king of men, and great Achilles were parted in anger.
That's about as much Homer as one review can bear, and about as much as makes it into the requisite "historical epic action summer blockbuster" for model year 2004. For those who haven't read Homer (and even more for those who have), here follows a brief explanation of our tale:
Hector (Eric Bana, Black Hawk Down, Hulk), a prince of Troy, and his younger, pretty-boy brother Paris (Orlando Bloom, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings) have been sent to Sparta by their father, the aging King Priam (Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter), to make peace with the Spartan king, Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson, Cold Mountain, Braveheart). All appears to go well, and peace seems at hand. However, as the two brothers depart Sparta for Troy, Paris takes it upon himself to make off with a souvenir. Not content to steal the royal towels, or perhaps an ashtray, he secrets away in his ship none other than Helen (Diane Kruger, National Treasure, Wicker Park), the wife of King Menelaus. By the standards of the time this was considered bad form; something of an insult to Menelaus after his hospitality and willingness to make peace.
When Menelaus discovers Paris and Helen's betrayal, he is not pleased. He immediately contacts his brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae (Brian Cox, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Manhunter), who has been busy unifying the various warring Greek city-states under his thumb. He longs to do the same to Troy, and sees in his brother's marital woes the perfect pretext for an invasion. Key to his success will be the martial skills of Achilles (Brad Pitt, Ocean's Eleven (2002), Snatch), the greatest warrior among all the Greeks. (In the original version, there was a whole backstory about the character being the son of a god and a mortal, and how he was invincible except for one place on his body, but all those wacky gods and goddesses have been unceremoniously jettisoned from this version of the story.) Unfortunately for Agamemnon, he manages to irritate Achilles by stealing the Trojan girl Briseis (Rose Byrne, Wicker Park), whom Agamemnon had claimed as a prize of war. As a result, Achilles winds up sitting out most of the battle against the Trojans. The events that motivate him to rejoin the battle lead to the (mostly) thrilling climax in this Bronze Age clash of rival powers.
If it weren't for the 3000+ years of hype to live up to, Troy would have been a thoroughly satisfying summer action flick. It has decent characters, an intelligent plot full of conflicting motives and machinations, and action clearly targeted at adults rather than the pimply PG-13 crowd. The actors for the most part do a respectable job, with O'Toole, Gleeson, and Cox each delivering some particularly choice moments. The direction is good, the cinematography is excellent, and the sets, props, costumes and special effects are all spectacular.
Even Brad Pitt manages to hold his own with this crowd, despite a dodgy accent that sounds like he stole Russell Crowe's from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Achilles, to anyone familiar with The Iliad, comes across much of the time as petulant, arrogant, vain, and petty. Pitt captures just about the right tone with the character, as though it were second nature to him -- small wonder, considering in which industry he makes his living. Pitt's Achilles is a man who believes in his greatness and lives only to prove it to the rest of the world. He is eclipsed, however, by Eric Bana's dutiful, decent Hector. This is supposed to be Achilles's movie, but Hector emerges as the most likeable, believable -- dare I say heroic -- character in the film. Bana plays the part with a mixture of confidence and resignation, giving a portrayal of a man secure in his combat skills but displeased with the need to use them to clean up his brother's mess. Finally, Sean Bean's appearances as Odysseus are relatively few and short, but always welcome.
As usual with recent Warner Brothers releases, Troy looks great. Colors are sharp and vivid, and blacks have proper depth. Much of the film is shot under conditions of shadow or torchlight, and it is a credit to both the cinematography and the transfer that it comes off so well here. On the other hand, the audio was a bit of a letdown. Music and effects sound spectacular, with excellent directionality and tracking through the viewing environment. Dialogue is problematic, however; it seemed to me that the center channel had a bit too much low-end power, leading it to distort and ring as though the movie were being shown in a locker room. I was left looking around for James Earl Jones.
The selection of extra features is a bit skimpy, and makes one question why a second disc was needed at all. Disc One holds only the film, English Dolby 5.1 and French Dolby 2.0 audio tracks, and three flavors of subtitles. No Wolfgang Petersen commentary, no featurettes, nothing. Perhaps the film's running time of nearly three hours ate up so much space that there was simply no room for goodies like a DTS track or a commentary, but given what other studios have accomplished with films of similar length, this seems doubtful. It seems that the special features were all moved to Disc Two simply for the purpose of creating a two-disc edition and thus generating more hype.
The features that do appear on Disc Two are not really all that special. There are three featurettes, running a total of 42 minutes. One deals with filming the action sequences, one shows how the production design by turns tried to draw from and fudge history, and the third deals with visual effects, previsualization, and "cable cam" shots. Five years ago this might have been an adequate, even impressive, collection of material, but in 2005 this is no longer the case. Talking heads, on-set clips, and computer effects demos have become passé. Also included is the "Gallery of the Gods," billed as a 3D-animated guide to Greek myth. It contains a few interesting facts about the Greek gods, but nothing beyond the very basic. It's pretty lame -- and also quite irrelevant, considering how the gods have been excised from this telling of the tale. I also find it odd that the special features are subtitled in French, but not in English or Spanish. All told, this is a disappointing collection of supplemental material, and hardly justifies the existence of a second disc in this package. Oh, wait -- there's also a theatrical trailer. I guess that makes it all worthwhile.
One of the more humorous moments in the special features comes during the featurette "From Ruins to Reality." Someone involved with the construction of the massive Troy sets in Malta makes the comment that "they don't make movies like this anymore." I'm not sure what island this person has been hiding on for the last five years or so, but it seems clear that a boatload of these sorts of films has been made ever since the success of Gladiator.
There is also an Easter Egg hidden in the Special Features menu. On the first page of the menu, with the listing of featurettes, move your cursor over to the right to highlight a piece of the fabled Trojan horse. Click on this, and you will be rewarded with a short computer animatic sequence featuring such hijinks as a Bronze Age men's room, a Myrmidon waterskiing behind a Greek galley, and several rubber duckies replacing the 1000 ships of the Greek fleet. It is mildly amusing.
Troy may make for a fine summer popcorn movie, but it does tend to sink under the weight of prior expectations; expectations built up in one sense over 3200 years, but also, in particular, during the last ten. The Iliad, like the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, holds a position of monumental importance in Western culture.
Among the disappointments from the cast is Diane Kruger's portrayal of the legendary Helen of Troy. To be sure, she's exquisitely beautiful and could justify the launch of at least a few ships (she could certainly float my boat), but her characterization is so flat and lifeless that only a weenie like Orlando Bloom's Paris could really consider selling out an entire kingdom for her. Frankly, she was much more appealing in this autumn's National Treasure, which was a far sillier story, but which at least allowed her to show some spark and spunk that might actually lead someone to see her as more than eye candy. As it stands, when Hector asks Paris, "You would let Troy burn for this woman?" we tend to agree with the older, wiser brother. The relationship between Paris and Helen is so weepy, overwrought, and maudlin that it belongs on some ancient Greek version of The Young and Restless, not a filmed version of The Iliad.
Another big disappointment, or at least a near miss, was James Horner's score. It was so clearly identifiable as his work from the outset that I kept expecting either Ricardo Montalban or Kate Winslet to pop out from behind a rock. The parts that weren't boilerplate Horner felt like hand-me-downs from Hans Zimmer's scores for Gladiator and Black Hawk Down.
Troy also runs into problems when it is time for battle. The one-on-one combat (for example, between Achilles and Hector) is thrilling and well-executed. The large-scale battle scenes are remarkable for the clarity of their action and the minimal use of the "shaky-cam" technique that has become so annoying. However, the real downfall of these battles is their sheer size and scope. Massive hordes of CGI warriors just ain't what they used to be. They look great, and perhaps the Greeks really had that many men present for the Trojan War, but in visual terms the size of the armies reaches a point where it crosses from the impressive to the ridiculous. The battle scenes also suffer because we have seen so many epic battles in the last five years that they've become repetitive. Ever since Braveheart came out ten years ago, we know that all battles in movies of this kind will start with rousing speeches from the leaders of the armies. Then there will be an exchange of several volleys of arrows, with several extras buying the farm in gruesome and painful ways. The two armies will then surge forward and collide like waves breaking against the shore, after which there will be much mayhem and slaughter. Troy hits all the marks, but it seems to this reviewer that audiences are becoming ever more jaded to even the most brutal recreations of ancient warfare.
The biggest problem with the overall production, however, is an inconsistency in tone. Achilles in particular is just a little too modern and class-conscious about fighting; here is a man who lives to fight and thirsts for the kind of glory and immortality that only battle can give, yet he complains about kings who make him fight rather than doing their own fighting. His statements to this effect make even less sense when we realize that kings such as Menelaus and Agamemnon are present on the battlefield. Hector, too, seems a little more preoccupied with the costs of war and the painful realities of death than seems fitting for a Homeric hero. Wolfgang Petersen is, of course, the genius behind Das Boot, one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. I'm not so sure, however, that those sentiments fit very well in Homer's heroic epic; there is altogether too much hand-wringing here. The inconsistencies in tone are most pronounced, however, in screenwriter David Benioff's (25th Hour) dialogue, which veers wildly from the poetry of O'Toole's meeting with Pitt to the all-too-modern lingo of the Helen/Paris relationship.
Little details throughout the movie bothered me as well. Should Greece already look ancient and ruined at this point in history? Wouldn't a city as rich and powerful as Troy have some sort of seaport facilities down on the beach, rather than just an expanse of sand? Just where are the massive gates of Troy supposed to lead, anyway? There's no road there to speak of, and no port as noted earlier, so just what do these massive gates in the wall facing the sea really accomplish? Then, there are the changes to the end of the story and the fates of many of the characters. I won't give spoilers, but I will say that Aeschylus's sequels have pretty well been preempted here.
Troy was not as good as it should have been, but better than I expected it to be based on the reception it got in theaters. It is more intelligent than most summer blockbusters, and I suspect it would have fared better if Homer's name had not been attached to the project; no film could live up to that degree of heightened expectations.
Not guilty! Say what you will, but I found Troy an entertaining, fun, and intelligent tale of a long-forgotten war, never mind the liberties taken with the original story. The DVD from Warner Brothers is adequate, with excellent picture, flawed audio, and an acceptable but skimpy collection of special features.
Review content copyright © 2005 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 162 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "In The Thick of the Battle" Featurette
* "From Ruins to Reality" Featurette
* "Troy: An Effects Odyssey" Featurette
* Gallery of the Gods (3-D tour of Mount Olympus and Gods of Ancient Greece)
* Theatrical Trailer
* Easter Egg
* Official Site