Some of Achilles' nerve comes in handy for anyone trying to make Homer's Iliad sing and swagger in a 2-hr. 40-min. movie. Director Wolfgang Petersen, writer David Benioff and their cohort just about pull it off. In this vigorous, stalwart epic, they blend martial breadth and emotional intimacy, honor and obsession, romance and machismo to show the glamour and folly of war. Old men plot; young men die; strong women weep.
The old men are Agamemnon (Brian Cox), a greedy Greek with an addiction to regime change, and Priam of Troy (Peter O'Toole), whom melancholy has made too wise. Priam's younger son Paris (Orlando Bloom) has run off with Helen (Diane Kruger), legendarily gorgeous young wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). Agamemnon and Odysseus of Ithaca (Sean Bean) lead a siege of Troy, and the kingdoms' best warriors Achilles and Hector (Eric Bana) are fated to fight it out.
A war film needs battles, and Troy has nearly a dozen of them, employing arrows, spears, great balls of fire rolling down a slope to crush the enemy. The beach blitz has Achilles and his Myrmidons capturing the territory for Agamemnon in an Omaha Beach like assault (Saving Priam's Rival). But thousands fighting thousands is war; man fighting man is drama. Troy boasts plenty of good old Hellenic fist power. Paris vs. Menelaus, Hector vs. Ajax the Great, Achilles vs. Hector it's a dream card at Madison Square Garden, and the movie choreographs each set-to with burly ingenuity. This is The Iliad as a WWE SmackDown: violent fights, snappy insults and a connoisseur's idolatry of beautiful brawn. (Who knew Greece had so many blonds?) When Paris cringes from Menelaus and hugs Hector's sturdy leg, it's as if he thinks he can turn a one-on-one brawl into a tag-team match.
In an outdoor epic, everyone has to look great, and everyone does here fit for battle (the guys) or for bed (the women). Pitt and Bana carry the film on their dishy delts. Bloom is so winsome as Paris that he almost makes the cowardly girly-man a teen idol. And for echoes of epics past, Troy has David Lean's Lawrence and Lara: O'Toole, sere and majestic, and Julie Christie as Achilles' mother Thetis.
What gives Troy its maturity is its refusal to take sides. Who's the hero here? Achilles? If so, he's a tragic one. Hector? He's on the losing side. For all its surface glorifying of war bravery and the brooding introspection it allows the leads, the film's view is from above, where the gods watch men kill one another for real estate and destroy the land they would occupy.
This August, Greece, which gave birth to the poetics of war, will try to stage an athletic competition in which no one dies. But for a smart take on why men need to compete and combat, Athens won't be able to top TROY. And for movies, this is the summer game to beat.