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Homer's heroes

Achilles, Hector and Paris tromp through a 'Troy' that is half Hollywood, half 'Iliad.'

May 14, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"They're laughing at me in Troy," King Agamemnon wails.

And that's not the only place.

Inspired by Homer's "The Iliad" as filtered through the sensibility of writer David Benioff and director Wolfgang Petersen, "Troy" will cause chuckles at multiplexes everywhere with earnest dialogue of the "I could have you whipped for your impudence" and "I'm not afraid of dying, I'm afraid of tomorrow" variety.

But before fans of the Demi Moore-starring "The Scarlet Letter" get their hopes up, it should be said that "Troy" is only half silly. It is also half serious, not to mention half bloody and half talky, half well-acted and half walked through, half faithful to its venerable sources and half wildly invented. Yes, that's an awful lot of halves, but this is a movie that's nearly 2 3/4 hours in length.

Given everything, it's no surprise that the verdict on the film has to be a split decision. "Troy" is a movie you believe in physically: With its specially created 20,000 arrows, 10,000 pairs of shoes, 8,000 costumes, 4,000 shields and 3,000 swords, not to mention a 38-foot-high Trojan horse that weighs in at 11 tons, how could you not?

Believing in "Troy" emotionally, however, presents a greater challenge.

Although screenwriter Benioff's attempt to make the dialogue contemporary is sincere enough, the final product is flat and soap opera-like more often than not. The kind of consistent dramatic tone achieved by "Gladiator," this film's clear model, is absent here. And this despite the fact that Brad Pitt provides the kind of convincing star turn his role as Achilles demands and Eric Bana's strong performance as his rival Hector will likely do for the Australian actor's career what "Hulk" was supposed to but didn't.

For those viewers familiar with "The Iliad" -- not exactly a key demographic -- "Troy's" script is a strange combination of accurate small details and major departures. The film keeps an oblique reference to Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, that few outside university classics departments will recognize, but it makes wholesale changes in characterization as well as the how and why of the deaths of major characters. Also, the role of Achilles' war trophy, the fetching captive Briseis ("I Capture the Castle's" Rose Byrne) has been pumped up to give the hero a love interest to call his own.

The most interesting change from the ancient sources (except for a brief cameo by Julie Christie as Achilles' mother, Thetis) is the complete absence of the Greek gods. Their names are mentioned frequently but, very different from "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," they do not physically appear and involve themselves in the world of flesh and blood.

This is most missed in the love affair of the Trojan Paris (Orlando Bloom) and the Greek Queen Helen (Diane Kruger), wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), that gets the narrative started. The fascinating mythic back story, that Helen's love was payback to Paris for a judgment he rendered in favor of the goddess Aphrodite, is completely gone. Instead, we get two heedless folks falling into bed and then fleeing to Troy because, hey, that's what people who are young and in love do.

Meanwhile, Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), is blustering his way across Greece in a major way. Characterized here (although not in the original) as arrogant and crazy for conquest, Agamemnon is the character most victimized by "Troy's" banal dialogue. "Before me," he sputters, "Greece was nothing, a nation of fire worshipers and snake eaters."

When Menelaus asks for his brother's help in getting his wife back, Agamemnon agrees to round up the usual suspects, including wily Odysseus (well-played by Sean Bean). He does this not out of filial affection or outrage at the violation of societal norms, but because, bad person that he is, he wants to add Troy and its never-been-breached walls to his list of conquests.

Similarly, Achilles is initially more interested in working out with his dishy young cousin Patroclus ("Don't ask, don't tell" is "Troy's" take on that relationship) than helping slimy Agamemnon. He changes his mind, because, like the contestants on "American Idol," he wants the fame and celebrity only a major victory can bring.

Pitt has developed arms the size of ham hocks to play Achilles, and what is intriguing about his and the film's take on the hero is that he has been shrewdly conceptualized as a spoiled movie star. Irresistible to women, held in awe by men, given to constant demands and tantrums, Achilles actually was the ancient world's equivalent of a multiple Oscar winner.

Pitt plays this part quite well, and did I mention how good he looks? If I didn't, no one who sees the film will be able to avoid it. As shot by Roger Pratt, no doubt with Petersen's approval, it is Achilles who is this film's major sex object, shamelessly lusted after by the camera. Compared to him, the face that launched a thousand ships is treated like so much Greek chopped liver.

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