Achilles, Heal Thyself
by Adam Nayman

Dir. Wolfgang Petersen, U.S., Warner Bros.

A quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t buy much these days, it seems: it couldn’t motivate Alex Rodriguez to get the Texas Rangers into the Major League Baseball playoffs (prompting his trade to the deep-pocketed and very evil New York Yankees), nor can it produce even a moderately entertaining Hollywood blockbuster. And you’d better believe that Warner Brothers would have loved to foist, Rodriguez-like, their Cliffs-Notes Iliad of Troy on some other unsuspecting studio—-maybe those smug bastards at Columbia, likely off lighting cigars with thousand dollar bills in anticipation of Spiderman 2.

To stretch this baseball analogy past its breaking point, the main difference between A-Rod and Troy is that the latter isn’t even close to being a thoroughbred performer. To the contrary, it’s a lumbering, knuckle-dragging behemoth that swings for the fences but whiffs badly—the Cecil Fielder, if you will, of event movies. Wolfgang Petersen, whose reputation as a crackerjack action director has taken a tumble in recent years, was absolutely the wrong choice. His best pictures, from Das Boot to In the Line of Fire, are marked by economy—of narration, of location, and of performance. But as its now much-publicized price tag attests, there’s nothing economical about Troy, and in reaching for effects to justify both the film’s budget and its positioning as the studio’s main summer tent pole, the usually nimble-footed Petersen steps very wrongly almost all of the time.

Mistake number two was casting Brad Pitt, an actor who, to return to the garish theme of economics (and given Warner’s transparently mercantile aspirations in releasing the film, this seems more than appropriate) is hardly synonymous with box office lucre. Pitt’s hits, of which there are only a few notables (Seven, 12 Monkeys, Ocean’s 11), share more than their curious titular emphasis on numerology: helmed by strong directors all, they use this talented character actor—he is not, otherworldly good looks and uber-famous wife aside, a real and galvanizing movie star—as a sort of stealth weapon. Pitt is at his best when helping others to look good, but unfortunately, Troy is engineered in the other direction, as a showcase for its star’s wares.

Indeed, Pitt gets the most screen time as the Greek warrior Achilles, he of the legendary fighting prowess and chronic bum heel. Well-nigh invincible in the mode of early Eighties Hulk Hogan and allegedly the bastard son of a God, Achilles soldiers brilliantly but reluctantly for the power-mongering King Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Agamemnon has designs on ruling the entire ancient world, and so when Paris (Orlando Bloom), a callow young prince of the walled city of Troy, absconds with Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menaleus (Brendan Gleeson), himself a petty despot of Sparta, a thousand-ship Coalition of the Willing is launched. The safe recovery of Helen is, of course, little more than a cover story along the lines of WMDs: Agamemnon wants to annex Troy, but cynical henchman Achilles has to be coerced into going along. His refusal to go by the parchment, coupled with his constant sassing of his superior officers, paints him as the original Dirty Harry. Had cannons been invented yet, he’d have owned a loose one.

On screen, this exposition is as tortuous as it sounds. Pitt’s personality vacuum as Achilles means that we don’t particularly care if this super soldier goes along. Meanwhile, as Troy is governed by the doddering old fool King Priam (played by that expert doddering old fool, Peter O’Toole) and its young prince Paris is, basically, a self-absorbed knob, there’s not much reason to care about its citizens’ fates. When he’s not blankly canoodling with his new bride, Paris sounds suspiciously like Stephen Glass, timidly asking anyone within ear shot if they’re, like, mad at him. Lucky for Paris that his beefy older brother, Hector, is around to deflect the criticisms of the Trojans and whip the overmatched army into fighting shape; lucky for us that Hector is played by former Hulk Eric Bana, whose cartoon jaw-line is augmented by a pair of brown peepers that frankly out-soulful Bambi, or even Pokemon.

Bana’s real-deal charisma imbues Hector with dignity and the movie with some life: when he’s mowed down by Achilles—in Troy’s best scene, a tense mano-a-mano battle scored to some “Amok Time” worthy percussion—there’s nothing left to do but wait for the Horse. And darned if the equine contraption doesn’t hit its mark in record time. In The Iliad, the siege of Troy lasted for ten years; here, it’s a matter of weeks. Achilles’s death is supposed to occur well before the deployment of the Trojan Horse; in this version, he’s the first Greek to drop, ninja-like, into the unguarded town square.

It’s not that modern audiences will mind the additions to The Iliad—the teenage boys sitting next to me at the opening night screening were actually surprised that there were Greeks hiding in that big horse—but it’s easy to recognize how the film’s careless approach to its source material bespeaks the folly of the whole enterprise. Why pour a small fortune into a dour, overlong, and pointedly secular retelling of a story that doesn’t really interest you in the first place? Gladiator transposed Rocky into the Roman Coliseum, and succeeded as a gaudy, gory toga party. It had a charismatic star (Russell Crowe) and a single narrative point of view (his). Troy, by contrast, is at its very weakest when it focuses on the sulking, petulant, I’ll-be-in-my-tent-if-you-need-me Achilles.

Perhaps sensing this faulty construction, Petersen digresses to show us events from multiple perspectives, even utilizing the pro-sports cliché of the “helmet cam” during Paris’s duel with Menaleus, but this directorial excess only succeeds in confirming the total lack of direction. A Kubrickian detachment would have served this material well, but Petersen’s array of swooping crane shots and teeming CGI hordes suggest played-out visual strategies rather than a sense of Olympian distance.

It’s telling that Troy’s most affecting and poetic image is its first: a dusty bare plateau primed for impending conflict. The timelessness of the landscape, the tingly suggestion that the battle might have already been fought long ago, leaving only this blank natural canvas in its memory: these are the feelings that, carefully developed and multiplied, might have made for a sticky and memorable epic. Instead, the moment the location becomes infested with people (or, more to the point, extras in I, Claudius costumes) the wonder ceases and the boredom—the restless, vaguely angry kind that only bearing witness to a colossal waste of resources can foster—sets in. The arduous march of time suggested in that first shot becomes literally enacted by Petersen’s plodding, bejewelled albino pachyderm, and the only satisfaction we as moviegoers might take is the knowledge that, hampered by its twin Achilles heels of length and an R-rating, this is one colossus that will eventually fall, and fall hard.