War, what is it good for?

Niels Strandskov

Judging by their pottery, the ancient Greeks were interested in three things: breasts, buggery and badasses. Sadly, “Troy,” directed by Wolfgang Petersen, presents evidence of only one of these three obsessions.

“Troy” is of course based on Homer’s epic poem, “The Illiad.” This adaptation is somewhat loose, as evinced by the llamas the Trojans lead around their city and the conspicuous absence of any gods, demigods, naiads, dryads, titans or other mythological entities. David Benioff’s screenplay imagines the causes and conduct of the Trojan War in terms that are more soap-operatic than epic.

The Trojan prince, Paris (Orlando Bloom), who is quite the dashing young gigolo, seduces Helen (Diane Kruger), wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), whose brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), lusts after dominion over the entire Aegean region. Paris’ older, wiser and tougher brother, Hector (Eric Bana), has a bad feeling about this, which turns out to be well-founded, as Helen’s abduction is just the excuse Agamemnon needs to bring a huge army, including his best warrior, Achilles (Brad Pitt), to the gates of Troy.

“Troy” seems mostly conceived as a Pitt vehicle, thus the action revolves around Achilles, who broods, battles and boinks a Trojan priestess of Apollo. Surprisingly, given the film’s R rating, this does not net very much graphic sex or violence. Like “Gladiator” before it, “Troy”‘s action-movie classification is undermined by quick cuts away from any death that threatens to be gory. This means that while Achilles certainly kills plenty of Trojans as well as a few Greeks, he never musses his hair or begrimes himself with more than a few discreet droplets of blood. Pitt doesn’t even allow a real sex scene to interfere with his single-minded desire to be the perfect epic hero. As for a homosexual subtext, sadly any hint of warrior love is buried deep beneath a spackling of compulsory heterosexuality.

Even with a lead actor as sullen and serious as Pitt, “Troy” could have been a camp masterpiece along the lines of “Clash of the Titans” or “Kull the Conqueror.” Cox seems to be the only person involved with the production to recognize this fact. His grasping, unctuous, imperious performance is a pleasant diversion from Peter O’Toole’s weepy moaning as Priam, King of Troy, and the rest of the somnambulists who populate the cast.

Since “Troy” takes its homage to sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s quite seriously, few expenses were spared in the production design. The sets and battle sequences, though clearly reliant on computer generated imagery technology, are quite believable. The costuming is opulent and the cinematography, with the exception of the quick cuts away from any hint of the real effects of sword wounds, is beautiful. Although most of the outdoor action was filmed in Baja California, Mexico, the camerawork cunningly replicates the deep blues and sun-drenched golden hues of the Aegean.

Homer and the other ancient storytellers cleverly divined that sex and violence – the nastier the better – are the two things that you need to get people to listen to tales of honor and virtue. But this banal, bowdlerized version of “The Illiad” has little to do with great storytelling. It is as if Hollywood, in its ongoing project to reproduce reality on screen, has decided that an audience’s attention can be held by nothing more stimulating than a madman’s dreams of empire.