The Iliad‘s Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, but it’s the chiseled visages and sculpted physiques of male matinee idols that matter in Wolfgang Peterson’s Homeric adaptation Troy. As Paris, Orlando Bloom’s delicate, teenybopper attractiveness helps accentuate the Trojan prince’s slightness and egotism, while a bearded Eric Bana—as Paris’s noble warrior brother Hector—sports beefcake pectorals which provide more cleavage shots than the fetching but modestly clothed Helen herself. And at the epicenter of this collection of drool-worthy studs is Brad Pitt, whose bronzed, ripped body, long golden tresses, and photogenic brooding give his demigod killer Achilles a striking Vanity Fair stylishness. With such a bevy of buff bods, Peterson’s film—a stately, serviceable, but largely unremarkable historical epic about the legendary fight for the heart of a woman and the conquest of a nation—naturally subscribes to a no-shirt rule for ancient Greece’s most prominent heroes. This isn’t the era of antiquity; it’s the age of rock-hard abs.
Peterson’s sturdy film is largely faithful in recreating the basic elements of Homer’s cumbersome narrative—Paris steals Helen (newcomer Diane Kruger) away from Spartan prince Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), who in turn successfully convinces his conquest-mad emperor brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox) to wage war against Troy with the help of his peerless soldier Achilles and, ultimately, a trusty wooden horse. Yet for a 3,600-year-old story dealing with the Big Themes of Love, Death, Honor, Sacrifice, and the Gods (reverently pronounced “Gawds!” by Spartans and Trojans alike), Troy‘s by-the-books spears-and-sandals spectacle (streamlined for the screen by David Benioff) has a decidedly modern feel.
During a rowdy opening feast between the cordial Trojans and Spartans, Hector and Menelaus toast “to the Gods!” by pouring wine on the ground like a couple of hip-hop stars mourning their dead with 40-ounces. Hector and Paris’s return home to Troy with Helen in tow is met with a joyous ticker tape parade, while Achilles’s showdown with Hector—not only the best of the film’s many accomplished action sequences, but a clash that outdoes anything in Ridley Scott’s overly frantic Gladiator—has a WWE-meets-the-NFL adrenaline. Achilles, in fact, even has a pro-wrestling-style patented finishing move in which he leaps up and fatally stabs his opponent once in the shoulder. By the time Trojan King Priam (played with magisterial weariness by Peter O’Toole) first lays his eyes on the stunning Helen, one half-expects him to call her “juicy.”
Not to say that Troy is just bodacious boy toys grappling with each other on the sandy Trojan shore. Peterson’s film strives for the timeless and the monumental, and thus his cast is filled out with an assortment of distinguished thespians. Cox and Gleeson, spitting and screaming to their hearts’ delight, maniacally devour the scenery as Agamemnon and Menelaus, while O’Toole and Julie Christie (as Achilles’s mother Thetis)—no strangers to David Lean-esque cinematic pageantry—add some dignified regality to the bloody, combat-heavy events. And Peterson, aided by beautifully sunburnt cinematography by Roger Pratt and authentic production design by Nigel Phelps, skillfully balances his cornucopia of colossal CGI effects (which include a recreation of the 1,000-ship fleet and Troy’s towering architecture) with quieter moments involving Achilles, Hector, and Paris’s struggle with doubt, fury, and guilt.
What the director cannot accomplish, however, is instilling his story’s turbulent passions and desires with more than a solemn superficiality. Achilles, who loathes his king Agamemnon, fights not for country or honor but for immortality, but his inner discord over the worthiness of such a goal—heightened by his romance with feisty, fearless Spartan slave girl Briseis (Rose Byrne), and also his realization of the countless lives he’s ended—is, like too much of the film’s essential drama, handled with affected grandiosity. Peterson is at home orchestrating the immense war scenes, but when it comes to intimate personal relationships, his direction becomes stilted and pretentious, such as his penchant for awkwardly switching to slow-motion at the end of scenes, relying on thunderous war drums for the battles and Enya-ish music for the tragic events, and including unintentionally funny bug-eyed reaction shots of Helen, Priam, and Hector’s wife Andromache (Saffron Burrows) during Hector’s last stand.
“Ignore the politics,” Odysseus (Sean Bean) tells the jaded Achilles, though it will surely be tough for some to avoid concocting parallels between Agamemnon’s crusade with today’s war in Iraq, or Achilles’s defilement of the slain Hector with recent images of prisoners being despicably mistreated by U.S. soldiers. In the case of Troy, however, such comparisons are largely facile, as Peterson’s lengthy film is primarily interested in the immense cost war takes on its victors and losers, as well as the greed and irresponsibility that governs so many youthful hearts. Bruised and battered by the skillful Menelaus in a duel he believes may save Troy from war, Paris—a reckless, selfish playboy more interested in his own emotional and sexual appetites than the fate of his countrymen—pathetically crawls to his brother Hector’s feet, desperately seeking refuge from impending death at the hands of his Spartan adversary. Hector, infused with courageous loyalty by the commanding Bana, saves his spineless sibling. But in this one pitiful act of cowardice, Bloom’s Paris sums up the foolishness of the Trojan War, and provides Troy with a magnificently arresting glimpse of human cravenness to trump the film’s otherwise overwrought classical posturing.