At the start of Troy, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), unifier of the Greeks, must cajole Brad Pitt's Achilles out of his tent to engage in single-warrior combat against a giant Thessalian. I kept thinking not of Homer, but how difficult it was to get Marilyn Monroe out of her trailer on the desert locations of The Misfits.
This handsome and occasionally exciting movie flounders because it confuses Tinseltown glamour with legendary heroism and beauty. Brad Pitt creates an amazing smudge-free image but no mystery - except, perhaps, "What is his workout regimen?" (For Troy, daily three-hour workouts along with five low-fat meals and a full night's sleep.) He'd be a perfect Adonis. But as Achilles, described in Robert Fagles' translation as "the most violent man alive," Pitt fails to surge with vehemence or fury.
Pitt played an embodiment of violence once before - Tyler Durden in The Fight Club (1999) - but it brought out nothing electric in his acting and did little to conjure an intriguing aura. This star doesn't stand for something the way Paul Newman and Steve McQueen did for two-fisted alienation, or Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas for cocky disillusionment, or Clark Gable and James Cagney for virile aggression. He's a good-looking void.
Variety's Todd McCarthy has suggested that only the young Marlon Brando could have portrayed Achilles pouring all his possibilities into prowess. Actually, a number of previous luminaries might have pulled off that feat - McQueen, with his trip-hammer reflexes and force, would have been sensational.
To be fair, Pitt handles battle choreography with aplomb. He jumps into a fight like Superman leaping tall buildings with a single bound. He dances through what amount to agility routines as he vanquishes that Thessalian mammoth and the greater challenge of Troy's Prince Hector (Eric Bana).
But generally Pitt transforms a man who revels in superior force into a solipsistic superstar. This Achilles' brand of glory comes up empty, like new-millennium fame. Since neither writer David Benioff nor director Wolfgang Petersen has given the Greeks anything to wrestle with mentally except their enduring reputations, Troy is a huge spectacle surrounding a sleepy hollow.
Despite Benioff's reputation as a writer (he did the very good original novel and the not-so-good script for the Spike Lee film The 25th Hour), the middle route he and director Petersen have taken resembles a Classics Illustrated comic book. Real comic-book readers know that these fancy pamphlets had less to do with vivid kinetic art than with stately illustrations of a classic's main events. Accordingly, Benioff swiftly establishes Achilles' enmity toward Agamemnon, then moves to the Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Helen (Diane Kruger) cuckolding Agamemnon's brother, Sparta's King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson).
Again, the central casting goes woefully awry. Kruger is comely and vacant, the screen-epic equivalent of an anchor blond. For the story to work, Helen needs to be earthquakingly gorgeous, like Elizabeth Taylor in full bloom in the 1952 Ivanhoe (too bad she only got to play Helen 15 years later in Dr. Faustus), or Sophia Loren in The Gold of Naples or Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze or Ursula Andress in Dr. No or Michelle Pfeiffer in anything. Bloom is actually prettier than Kruger, his Paris more a juvenile opportunist than a conqueror of kingly boudoirs.
Paris and Helen's dialogue dents your memory only when it's laughably bad. Trying to cut short their adultery, Helen tells Paris, "Last night was a mistake." Last night was a mistake? You half expect Paris to follow up with "You had me at `Hail Troy.'"
Because of the blankness or narcissism of the catalytic characters and the vapidity of their speech, audiences may be drawn to Agamemnon and Menelaus simply because Cox and Gleeson are such world-class glowerers. It's natural to identify with their grizzled characters' disdain for these cute youngsters.
What's worse, when Hector, Paris' brother and Troy's truest defender, takes center-screen, Benioff draws him as an unblemished patriot and family man, stripping him even of Homeric bloodlust. It becomes too easy to root for Troy as a city-state fighting off an aggressor army. That's partly because Bana brings some welcome warmth to his role and partly because Peter O'Toole as Troy's King Priam acts everyone else into the ruins.
Once again, under arid circumstances, O'Toole delivers skewed, unpredictable grandeur. He enters with a beady-eyed intensity, then adds shadows to the glare with poetic suggestions of a ruler's grand regrets. When he confronts Achilles with a father's grief, he breaks through Pitt's monomaniacal body-builder's glaze and makes the audience realize what they've been missing.