Review: Troy

[This review will contain spoilers for those of you uncultured swine who haven't read The Iliad]
He has some of the greatest teammates ever surrounding him. But the offense is not geared towards him, it stifles him, prevents him from displaying his true talents. How galling, for he is the greatest among the greatest. His coach wants him to play within the confines of the offense, to involve his teammates, but he will not listen to reason and charges headlong into battle alone, foolishly, yet no one can take their eyes off him as he soars into the air. His only downfall? A woman. Every generation has its Achilles, and ours is Kobe Bryant.
How to reimagine The Iliad for a modern audience? No need. Classic art emerges relevant to each generation, as it has again. Besides Kobe Bryant as Achilles (Brad Pitt) we have Shaquille O'Neal as Aias or Ajax, "give me the damn ball" Gary Payton as "give me the damn spear" Patroclus, "I just want to win a ring" Karl Malone as Odysseus, "why won't Kobe listen to me" Phil Jackson as "why won't Achilles obey my orders" Agamemnon (Brian Cox), Tim Duncan as noble Hector (Eric Bana). The Zen master should take his team to see Troy.
I revisited The Iliad to confirm my suspicions. Yes, indeed, long before Shaquille O'Neal was fouled by one brutish opposing player after another, Ajax suffered the same rude treatment during the Trojan War:
But Ajax could no longer hold his ground for the shower of darts that rained upon him; the will of Jove and the javelins of the Trojans were too much for him; the helmet that gleamed about his temples rang with the continuous clatter of the missiles that kept pouring on to it and on to the cheek-pieces that protected his face. Moreover his left shoulder was tired with having held his shield so long, yet for all this, let fly at him as they would, they could not make him give ground. He could hardly draw his breath, the sweat rained from every pore of his body, he had not a moment's respite, and on all sides he was beset by danger upon danger.
It's practically a transcript of Brad Miller on Shaquille O'Neal should the Kings and Lakers meet in the next round.
David Benioff does make a few other wise decisions. One is to shed the role of the gods in this version. A modern audience, especially the young girls in the theater to see Orlando Bloom and a buffed-out Brad Pitt would be unlikely to embrace Laurence Olivier as Zeus strolling about an Olympus shrouded in dry ice fog as in Clash of the Titans.
Another is to de-emphasize the role of the face that launched a thousand ships. No woman could live up to that title, and unknown Diane Kruger is given the thankless role here. That she plays Helen as a vapid, pretty face is besides the point, but she will still be vilified by critics for not living up to an impossible standard. Instead, Benioff places most of the blame for the war on a power-hungry Agamemnon, who many will compare to George Bush for launching a war under convenient pretenses. Agamemnon is played with scene-chewing glee by the always maniacal and triumphant Brian Cox.
Benioff and Petersen redirect most of the movie's attention to one of Western culture's original prima donnas, Achilles, a perfect hero for our age of preening sports stars. Brad Pitt is a good choice for Achilles. His chiseled face and muscular figure always having made him somewhat superhuman, and he does aloof and cocky very well. His Achilles reminds me that the trash-talking Larry Bird or Michael Jordan, bat-flipping Barry Bonds, Sharpie wielding Terrell Owens and cell-phone dialing Joe Horn, they all trace their lineage back to Achilles. We finally also learn the answer to how someone like Brad Pitt came into being: some Greek god bedded Julie Christie. It's the most credible explanation yet.
Forget about writing an original screenplay like Gladiator. Here we have an epic battle with a script already finished by Homer, perhaps of the greatest screenwriters of all time. It's the perfect setup, isn't it?
Unfortunately not. For one thing, the Greeks were nothing if not realists. Their gods were arrogant and flawed as much as the mortals in their myths, and all parties always received comeuppance for their hubris. The people in Greek myths always misstep in some way, and for the error of their ways were turned into trees, deer, insects, and then just when you thought they couldn't be punished enough they'd usually be hunted down or killed by their friends and family members, after which they might be served up as the main course at their child's birthday party. These are, after all, the people who invented Greek tragedy, perhaps the most perfect story archetype ever invented. Unfortunately, another democracy several thousands of years later converted to a new story type, that of the happy Hollywood ending in which the hero wins out, and The Iliad isn't that type of story.
Most of the truly sympathetic characters, and there are few in this drama, are supporting players. Who should the audience root for? Hector? Killed. King Priam? Ditto. Hector's wife, played by Saffron Burrows? She weeps for most of the movie, perhaps at the limited nature of her role in the script. The end of the movie arrives without a cathartic release for the audience, an artistic deficiency that will suppress repeat viewings and limit the movie's box office potential.
Also unfortunate is that the battle scenes, from buildup and pre-game inspirational speeches to the ground-shaking march of thousands of soldiers, to the initial bone-crunching, metal-crashing collision of armies, have all been done before. Wolfgang Petersen seems to acknowledge this and rather than fight it simply recycles old standards, like the old, crazy guy from Braveheart (James Cosmo) who plays a Trojan army leader of some sort here. Hey, it's a career, like being the LOOGY (lefty one out guy) out of the bullpen. You laugh, but that crazy old warrior isn't much older than John Franco. We have Boromir, err, Odysseus played by Sean Bean, and Legolas, here transformed into an effeminate Paris, played by Orlando Bloom, still wielding bow and arrow. We encounter the same camera shot that sweeps over the plains along the fault line where two armies collide, taken from Return of the King. It was a much more impressive effect before Peter Jackson and team showed it to us several times, before the days of Age of Empires when any teenage boy can generate the same effect on his home computer.
The battle scenes in Troy aren't always clearly framed. Early on, the Greeks storm the beaches of Troy. Rather, Achilles and his men the Myrmidons (I couldn't help but think of Ben Stiller in Zoolander whenever they said Myrmidon: "Mer-man! Mer-man!") storm the beach early, take one temple, and next thing we know Agamemnon is celebrating the great capture of the beach in his tent. Where were the defenses? Earlier we had seen a few Trojans placing long, pointy logs in the sand. Were some Greeks on foot, their line of sight hampered by the unwieldy tin helmets on their heads, supposed to dash unknowingly into one of these and spear themselves? It won't cause anyone to drop the invasion of Normandy down in the pantheon of beach assaults.
Even the hand-to-hand combat between armies is difficult to see, what with the tight framing, chaotic mess of bodies, and quick cuts. This is actually a problem with many American battle scenes. Certainly, such battles were probably a mess, but directors rely on this purposeful murkiness to mask poorly choreographed fight scenes and to suggest bloody carnage. Compare that with any martial art scene from a Hong Kong director and fight choreographer where every blow is framed beautifully for the audience.
Even when the camera focuses on one fight, it isn't always the right choice. During one battle, Hector meets Patroclus, disguised in Achilles's armor, in the midst of thousands of clashing warriors. As soon as they meet, everyone stops and forms a circle around them, as if surrounding two dueling break-dancers at a night club.
"Dance off! Dance off!"
"C'mon dude, go in the circle."
"No way man! That's Hector and Achilles! Their moves are too good! That stuff is tight. Check it out, Achilles is swinging his spear behind his back."
Somehow when the fight ends, Hector is able to call off the entire battle for the day. How does everyone else on the battlefield find out about the temporary peace? Text pages on the vibrating cell phones tucked under their leather battle skirts?
One positive is that Troy doesn't rely too heavily on digital effects, or at least those it does use are more seamless than in a movie like the latest Star Wars movies. However, Troy doesn't have one memorable signature or money shot of its own.
That is, of course, unless you count the several shots of a nude Brad Pitt reclining on furs. Achilles's fight with Hector is the one memorable fight in the movie, mostly because it's one on one. Pitt's Achilles is a modern day video game character, leaping into the air with the vertical of, well, Kobe Bryant. At one point I swear he executes a cross-over dribble and breaks Hector's ankles. Watching Pitt, I imagined myself holding an X-Box controller, hitting the B-button to execute one of Achilles' flying leaps, and then pressing the A and B buttons together to execute his flying death move in which he soars and pierces the all-important left upper shoulder of his foe.
Pitt looks good. That is also a problem, for he always looks too good, in every role he is in. It's the curse of the incredibly good looking, one I know firsthand. The problem is that it emphasizes some of the weaknesses in the script. For example, Pitt is shown falling for a Trojan priestess Briseis after one encounter, and then after one night of tossing around in the fur, he's so in love that he eventually dies for her. It's hardly believable, not least because it's impossible to imagine Pitt ever falling that deeply in love with anyone. Why fall in love when you look like that and can have any woman? Maybe Jennifer Aniston should've played Briseis. Then at least we'd have circumstantial evidence.
We're also to believe that Pitt returns to battle to avenge his cousin Patroclus's death at the hands of Hector. Our only insight into Achilles and Patroclus's relationship is one brief training battle with wooden swords where the two horse around. It's not enough to set up Achilles's murderous rage at his cousin's death, one which results in him dragging Hector's body around behind his chariot. The engines in Greek tragedies never leave any doubt as to their course; the endings always feel inevitable, unavoidable. Troy evokes no such certainty.
My final quibble with the movie is how poorly it sets up The Odyssey. The Odysseus of Troy is crafty, as to be expected, but also much too humble and mild-mannered. After all, this is the man who, having blinded and fooled the Cyclops and led his men to safety, can't resist getting in one last word. Sailing to freedom from the island where the blind Cyclops screams in fury, Odysseus cannot resist one last bit of trash talking.
"'Cyclops,' said I [Odysseus], 'you should have taken better measure of your man before eating up his comrades in your cave. You wretch, eat up your visitors in your own house? You might have known that your sin would find you out, and now Jove and the other gods have punished you.'
"He got more and more furious as he heard me, so he tore the top from off a high mountain, and flung it just in front of my ship so that it was within a little of hitting the end of the rudder. The sea quaked as the rock fell into it, and the wash of the wave it raised carried us back towards the mainland, and forced us towards the shore. But I snatched up a long pole and kept the ship off, making signs to my men by nodding my head, that they must row for their lives, whereon they laid out with a will. When we had got twice as far as we were before, I was for jeering at the Cyclops again, but the men begged and prayed of me to hold my tongue.
"'Do not,' they exclaimed, 'be mad enough to provoke this savage creature further; he has thrown one rock at us already which drove us back again to the mainland, and we made sure it had been the death of us; if he had then heard any further sound of voices he would have pounded our heads and our ship's timbers into a jelly with the rugged rocks he would have heaved at us, for he can throw them a long way.'
"But I would not listen to them, and shouted out to him in my rage, 'Cyclops, if any one asks you who it was that put your eye out and spoiled your beauty, say it was the valiant warrior Ulysses [Odysseus], son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca.'
This is, to me, one of the seminal moments in all of Western literature, the quintessential Western hero declaring his name with a sneering arrogance. From Odysseus to Muhammad Ali, a long and distinguished line of trash talkers.
The Odysseus shown in Troy shows not even the slightest inkling of such blooming arrogance. Maybe some of Achilles rubbed off? I credit Homer for realizing Odysseus needed a signature speech to feature in trailers and for the Oscar voters.