In the mood to launch a thousand ships? Fine, but it's gonna cost you. Feel like sacking the Temple of Apollo? Okay, but bring drachmas. Depending on who's counting, Warner Bros.' pre-summer blockbuster Troy budgeted out at anywhere between $175 million and $250 million, including the big wooden horse, assorted handmaidens and spears for everybody. At that price, you'd think the studio could have tossed Albany and Schenectady into the bargain. But no. All we get is one lousy walled city, circa 1200 BC, and in the end it gets burned to the ground.
Before that happens, however, adrenaline-charged German director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One) and an army of Hollywood techno-folk provide just about everything an old-fashioned, grand-scale epic is supposed to have. The Glory of Love! The Pity of War! A Cast of Thousands! Brat Pitt's Pecs, agleam with the blood of slain enemies. Little matter that the guy who allegedly inspired the whole thing -- old scribbler by the name of Homer -- would be hard-pressed to find any remaining shred of The Iliad in this over-the-top entertainment. It's got a lot of loud passion but not much poetry, and that's appropriate to a movie that could well be subtitled My Big Fat Greek Bloodletting.
The less said here the better about local politics in the old days -- about the beef Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) has with his unfaithful beauty of a wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), or about the imperial ambitions of King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) as he stares across the Aegean. It wouldn't even do to talk much about the delicate Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) and his steamy fling with Helen. Suffice it to say that the incredibly buff Pitt, who portrays the fierce Greek warrior Achilles (you know, the guy with the heel) looks tough as nails in a black leather miniskirt and sandals, but he's only slightly better sculpted than former Hulk Eric Bana, who essays the part of Hector, the Trojans' own top swordsman. Half-submerged in David Benioff's screenplay are some halfhearted cautions about the abuse of power and the dark lure of violence, but for the most part Troy is content to obsess on flesh -- Pitt's leaping, tormented flesh, Bana's doomed flesh, and the quivering flesh of three actresses so outlandishly gorgeous that you can't help wondering how to say "supermodel" in ancient Greek. Troy is ruled by the same canny muse who recently reduced the attack on Pearl Harbor to a love triangle and, back in 1939, reinvented the Civil War as the plaything of a vixen named Scarlett, and that's fine.
Benioff's uneven script (some of the dialogue sounds like it was written by Homer Simpson) chooses no side in the Greek-Trojan conflict, but when it comes to stargazing, Pitt is clearly Petersen's pick. While Roger Pratt's camera glides over him with obvious relish, we learn that this Achilles is no longer divine (at least he says he's not), but a trained killer with a hunger for immortality, a gift for bedding slave girls two at a time, and a ton of instant street cred. In scene one he skewers a warrior about nine feet tall. Ten minutes later he slashes his way through a hundred or so outclassed Trojans and, for good measure, decapitates a magnificent golden statue of Apollo, as if to spite all the gods. If you go in for idol-smashing, regicide and post-banquet debauchery, Brad's your man.
Achilles' spiritual salvation, it says here, comes via a beautiful Trojan priestess named Briseis (Rose Byrne), who eventually turns the great fighter into a lover. But first Petersen and company provide the transcendent battle scenes every war epic requires. After the huge armada of Greek ships (all but three of them computer-generated images) lands at Troy, we get a pitched battle before the city gates pitting 50,000 invaders (most of them virtual, too) against 50,000 defenders, while blond, blue-eyed Helen and old, bearded King Priam (grave, magisterial Peter O'Toole) look on from their skybox. The obligatory night fight shows us clever Trojans rolling huge balls of fire down a hill at the Greek encampment below, and there's the famously unhappy business in which the cowardly Paris shames himself in a one-on-one with the cuckolded Menelaus. What we're leading up to, of course, is the main event between Achilles and Hector, a bloody, percussive clangeroo featuring spears, swords and shields (but no helmets) that Don King would have been proud to book at Caesars.
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In the end, this sometimes silly but satisfying act of Love-and-War grandiosity delivers on its promises. Classicists won't learn much about Greek culture, or even pick up a decent recipe for moussaka, but as all-out, big-budget action movies that are set 3,200 years in the past go, this one will do just fine -- especially if you like seeing hundreds of Bulgarian extras getting smashed in the face with bronze hammers. Somewhere (maybe in the tank where he dreamed up the Red Sea), Cecil B. DeMille must be grinning.