Thursday, May 13, 2004

The success of “Gladiator” and “The Lord of the Rings” would tend to argue for a revival of all the cinematic trades needed to depict struggles set in ancient or mythological time frames. “Troy,” the first major production in more than a generation designed to re-enact highlights of the Trojan War, demonstrates a conspicuous rustiness at the art of antique simulation. In this dawn of digital spectacle it may be easier to launch a thousand phantom ships than it used to be, but the quality of command decisions remains wobbly throughout “Troy.”

Perhaps not wobbly enough to sink the production as an early summer entertainment. It’s been so long since the last movie that evoked the Trojan War or Greek mythology that the sheer novelty of the setting, costuming and weaponry may prove commercially secure.

Plan A for casting this saga would probably consist of signing Russell Crowe as Achilles, the pre-eminent warrior of the invading Greek armies, and Hugh Jackman as Hector, the overmatched but admirable champion among the Trojan defenders. Plan B must suffice for “Troy,” which endeavors to glorify Brad Pitt as Achilles while leaving Eric Bana with a scrawny heroic profile as Hector. When you factor in Orlando Bloom as an exceedingly boyish Paris, Diana Kruger as his fetching but ingenuous and apologetic Helen, Saffron Burrowes as Hector’s delicate spouse Andromache and Rose Byrne as Achilles’ captive sweetie Briseis, it’s easy to conclude that too many kings and queens were recruited from the senior prom.

There are some impressive figures among the faculty, notably Brian Cox as a gnarly, scornful Agamemnon and Peter O’Toole as a frail and repeatedly misguided Priam, but it seems a little odd that Priam is missing his queen, Hecuba, not to mention an alarmist daughter named Cassandra. Daughters prove very expendable: The filmmakers neglect to mention that Agamemnon sacrificed one named Iphigenia in order to speed his expedition.

This oversight calls attention to a larger conceptual snag. The Oympian gods who were busy interfering in the war as told by Homer are no longer active players. One can grant the realistic, practical advantages of shelving these divine interlopers until certain episodes are left in a fix. Exhibit A: How can Mr. Bloom escape the wrath of Brendan Gleeson’s cuckolded Menelaus? Aphrodite isn’t there to protect him, so director Wolfgang Petersen lacks a plausible escape route after showing the young seducer taking a pummeling on the battlefield.

Enduring fame is still the spur for Achilles, a fate underlined by Julie Christie as his mother, Thetis, in her guest-star episode. The choice between renown and early doom on one hand and long life as a paterfamilias on the other is so clear-cut that Mr. Pitt gazes profoundly at the off-screen horizon. To be fair, he does have one strong thoughtful interlude when informing Briseis that the gods envy human mortality. More often than not, his face settles into an apish pout during contemplative moods.

When armed and dangerous, Achilles seems to be modeling martial prowess rather than embodying it. The would-be awesome moves meant to illustrate ferocity in Mr. Pitt are showy duds. Digital illusions magnify the size of the contending armies effectively, but there isn’t a single battle sequence in “Troy” that stands out as a breathtaking creation, comparable to the big clashes in Peter Jackson’s “Rings” trilogy.

“Troy” is an unlikely candidate for esteem. It’s difficult to imagine the public demanding an “Odyssey” or an “Aeneid” from the same filmmaking apparatus.


TITLE: “Troy”

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence against a backdrop of the Trojan War; fleeting nudity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Screenplay by David Benioff, “inspired by” Homer’s Iliad. Cinematography by Roger Pratt. Production design by Nigel Phelps. Costume design by Bob Ringwood. Second unit director and stunt coordinator: Simon Crane. Visual effects supervisor: Nick Davis. Music by James Horner

RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes


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