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Troy

dir: Wolfgang Petersen
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I could lie and say that I went into the cinema expecting this film to be a biography of Troy. Not the city, but the animated actor from The Simpsons. Troy McClure. You might remember him from such educational films as ‘Lead Paint: Delicious But Deadly’, ‘Firecrackers: the Silent Killer’ and ‘Man versus Nature: The Road to Victory’. Alas, I was to be disappointed…

I’m positive the day Gladiator made a tonne of money, someone greenlit this flick. Hack screenwriters who’d been pushing crappy sword and sandal scripts for years to the talentless hacks that control the purse strings in Hollywood finally thought ‘Our time has come.’ I’m surprised there haven’t been more of them already. Who doesn’t want to see big beefy men whacking each other with swords and the like? It’s legitimised wrestling without the chairs or the midgets. People don’t have to feel embarrassed about liking it. Well, most people, at least.

Though I’ve always said any film can be improved with midgets. Especially midget prostitutes. Anyway, Troy doesn’t have any midget prostitutes. It tries to include almost everything else but CGI midget prostitutes, because it has a bazillion dollar budget, expensive stars in the cast, and a near three-hour running time. Still, it feels oddly underdone, as if the real story is somehow missing. How a three-hour film can feel incomplete should be a mystery to anyone except the producers of this decidedly hit and miss affair.

Someone must have approached director Wolfgang Petersen saying ‘make a film about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans but make it look like Gladiator’, to which he must have said ‘okay’, without a decent script in front of him or any other grander motivation. The idea appealed to the marketing department, which is all the reason needed to get a film made these days. Box office gold beckoned to them. The market is primed and ready for just such a film, they thought. It is after all a time of war, where death rains down from the sky and on the streets from the vest explosives of lunatics and dateless wonders.

People never get tired of war. At very least, they do not tire of it on the silver screen. I shouldn’t speak for other people, I should just speak for myself, it’s not like I’ve got my hand shoved up everyone’s arses operating them like the ventriloquist dummies that they are. I just love war films, I fucking love them, I’m not ashamed to say it. Good ones, that is. The crap ones make me want to hope that there are never any wars ever again, which would deprive us of more wonderful films in the future, which would clearly be a tragedy. The great ones end up being the pinnacle of the cinematic experience, horrifying us with the brutality of war but dazzling us with the sheer wonderfulness of heroism, apple pie and guy on guy action.

You may think that I’m being an arse of smart by speaking of war in such a facetious manner, but I’m deadly serious about my appreciation of the genre. There is a non-smartarse justification for this: war films, in their scope and in their essence, can be one of the most intense experiences realised visually and emotionally on the screen. Sure there are other genres where people die violently and horribly, but there’s not as much at stake. In war films, it is entire countries, entire ways of life at stake. Western Civilisation As We Know It! If our heroes fail then everyone’s grandma and postman is screwed! In a gangster or crime type flick, if Our Heroes are screwed then they are the ones in trouble, dead, or rodgered with phonebooks.

War films represent life lived at its keenest edge, where death can come mid-sentence by complete ricocheting surprise or at that obvious treacly moment of noble sacrifice. The coward and the hero, the good-hearted country boy and the street-wise city slicker can both brutally buy the farm. The ‘star’ status of the name on the marquee doesn’t guarantee anyone’s survival over the course of the film. It is grand, it is wonderful, it is utterly horrible and we hope that the closest all of us get to it is solely through the cinematic experience.

Most decent war films, even the ones criticised as being anti-war (which is a bizarre reason to criticise something for, in my book), simultaneously do the ‘apple pie’ stuff along with the ‘gee, doesn’t war suck?’ material. It’s up to the individual to decide whether Saving Private Ryan speaks to their inner angels or demons, or whether The Thin Red Line is the one that gets them tingly in their bad places. Every era of war can be excellent fodder for quality cinematic and Oscar gold. There’s Gettysburg and Ride With the Devil for the Civil War buffs, Paths of Glory and Renoir’s Grand Illusion for the World War I fans, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket for Vietnam aficionados, and even Three Kings and Courage Under Fire for those that feel Iraq War 1 was just the start of something big, just to name the tip of the iceberg. Look at all that cinematic goodness. It makes you want to get down on your fucking knees in order to thank the gods with tears of gratitude pouring from thine eyes that history has been generous enough to gift us with so many glorious wars in order to keep us entertained whilst we shove popcorn and diabetes-inducing confectionery into our gaping maws and munch abstractedly to distract us from our inexorable march to the grave.

I use all this crap as a preamble, a very long preamble by the looks of it, because I just want to establish the fact that I love watching war films. Those elements, moments, representations that I often respond to in these films are completely and utterly absent from this here monstrosity called Troy. I don’t think it’s even as good a film as Gladiator, and I dare say that just made a few people spray their coffee, morning bourbon or midnight sherry out of their mouths and onto the screen in disgust.

Sorry, kids. Don’t use your shirtsleeve to wipe that up. Get a tissue or something.

Wolfgang Petersen has, thus far, made one great film. It was called Das Boot, it represented the trials and tribulations of a German submarine crew during WWII (the absolute best war as far as entertainment is concerned, I think everyone will agree). Other than that, Petersen has been killing time since then. Oh, In the Line of Fire was passable entertainment, but c’mon, be honest, didn’t Air Force One make you want to punch Mother Teresa in the nuts?

Troy becomes an exercise in endurance not for the valiant soldiers fighting for glory on the shores of Troy, or the wicked kings bent on world domination, but for the poor audiences watching in horror as another badly mangled clunker of dialogue falls leaden from the lips of anyone not called Peter O’ Toole or Brian Cox. Almost every single other person does poorly, but I don’t really blame them, I blame the pretty ordinary script and the producers who had an objective in mind but fuck-all idea how to get there.

Taking the original story from Homer’s Iliad, the makers wisely excised everything that meant anything, and use some of the details as a basis for a weak melodrama and a passable tale of ancient war. I don’t really know why they really bothered pretending that this film has anything to do with the works attributed to Homer (who probably never existed and probably wasn’t a single ‘person’), but I guess in their eyes it adds some credibility to the proceedings. Though all it invokes is irritation and ridicule from anyone who ever read the original Homeric epics in the first place.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, like Beowulf, like the Gilgamesh epic and many stories from the Bible, have had their elements used throughout history in so many different stories and myths that it doesn’t really matter if recent updates stay true to the source material, because they’re so familiar. At least, the elements might be familiar to people whose reading experience is somewhat broader than reading what the calorie content is on food packaging or the alcohol content on a bottle of booze. In that case the big question is why would anyone bother spending $200 million on a film that doesn’t in fact want to tell the story anyway?

I’m guessing that the sum and total of their thinking amounted to ‘Brad Pitt’. People would see it anyway because of Brad Pitt. Maybe they’re not wrong. Surely there are more teenage girls and Queer Eye for the Straight Guys in the theoretical audience than literary scholars and leather elbow-patched historians interested in venturing down to the multiplex in order to kill a few hours. It’s called market discrimination, I believe.

Pitt plays Achilles, obviously. Much has been made about how he might have been miscast. I don’t think so. He looks perfectly splendid, exudes rank arrogance (as you would expect from a character that is meant to be the greatest living warrior), and masters that blank thousand yard stare which is meant to substitute for depth of character or complexity. They attempt to make him ambiguous, but it ends up seeming as complex as working out how to solve a Rubik’s cube where all the sides have been painted the same colour. At certain moments where they let him stare off for too long it seemed to me that he’d forgotten what he was supposed to be doing “Oh, I’m supposed to be acting now”, and then remember again.

Pitt can be a good actor in the right part with a good director. He can also be terrible. I thought he was decent in Se7en, Fight Club, True Romance and Twelve Monkeys. To use the correct Film Studies term, he’s sucked dog’s balls in Seven Years in Tibet, The Devil’s Own, Meet Joe Black, and almost everything else I can think of. I put it down to the actor, perhaps unfairly. Several years ago I remember watching a film called Living in Oblivion, a very funny film about the many and varied difficulties faced by a director trying to get an indie film made. One of the characters, Chad Palomino, is an awful, arrogant, crap actor foisted onto the director as a requirement for getting financed, who changes lines at will, constantly hits on the female co-stars and believes that he doesn’t need direction because he’s a star.

The character was based on director Tom DiCillo’s experiences during the making of a low budget movie called Johnny Suede. The movie happened to have as its 'star' a young Brad Pitt. It also had Nick Cave in it, but the less I talk about that film, the better.

Suffice to say whenever I watch Pitt and think he sucks, I remember the representation of him in Living in Oblivion, and I smile. Shame that little in this film gets me to smile. He’s okay in terms of the physicality of the role, but the dramatic elements are so limply realised and badly scripted in general that I would zone out and wait for another action scene, of which there are not enough. The exception to this is the Priam – Achilles scene between the venerable Peter O’ Toole and the venereal Pitt, which works exceptionally well, and better than almost every other scene in the film. As an aside, O’Toole, an actor I’ve loved for a very long time, appears to me to be not long for this world. It seems that in the same manner that Gladiator killed off Richard Harris (eventually) and Oliver Reed, Troy will be the death of O’Toole. As well as the death of several careers, one suspects.

Brian Cox as Agamemnon doesn’t so much chew the scenery as violate it painfully with no recourse to vaseline, as the classic Ice Cube song goes. Happy to collect a big paycheck he gleefully steps up as the film’s ‘villain’ and delivers a performance that will be frightening small children for decades to come thanks to the magic of DVD. In a story with so many characters, and most of them being superfluous, he was a delight that woke up lots of dozing old people whenever he lecherously reappeared.

He represents the film’s one bad guy. Everyone else is wonderful and noble. In that sense perhaps it’s refreshing to have the two sides of a conflict represented as just two different teams, rather than one side being complete white hats and the other side being dastardly wife-beating child-molesters. Although what this means for an audience is that we have no idea who we want to ‘win’. Although during one of many bored moments I do remember thinking, ‘Jeez, invade the city and kill everyone already!’

Who’s the most noble, hmm? Oh, that’d have to be Hector, played adequately well by Australia’s Own Eric Bana. The brother of the idiot that starts the whole conflict in the first place, he too is handicapped by dialogue you wouldn’t hear in a kindergarten play. He is only one man, however. There’s only so much one burly brawny bearded man can do. It is the fact that we like him that gives the only combat sequence of any emotional depth its power: his one on one fight with Achilles. Other than that the character could have been played by Tom Selleck, Ozzy Osbourne or Richard Dean Anderson for all that it mattered.

Some of the action scenes are pretty well done. Achilles’ fighting style was well realised from a choreographic point of view. It was stylised, of course, and I doubt people actually fought like that but it was simultaneously distinctive and dirty. It was a pleasure watching him kill so many countless people. The rest of the action is reduced to epileptic scenes tightly edited to the point where it mostly just blurs and I barely remember it.

Helen, wife of Menelaus, in the original story referred to as a woman so incredibly beautiful that her face alone is said to have launched a thousand ships in order to save her, looks like a hollowed out crack addict, and is a crap actress to boot. If there is any justice in this world (and as I keep saying, there isn’t) after this she will no longer work in Hollywood and will only get to work in the San Fernando Valley, where most of the world’s porn comes from.

There’s plenty of other crap in the movie, but there doesn’t really seem to be any point relating it all. One of the only other aspects that I liked was the famed Trojan Horse itself: the way it looked and the manner in which it was constructed. Odysseus, played well by Sean Bean, is a rare character in the film, moderately entertaining and comfortable in the setting, but is a day late and a dollar short, as the phrase goes. It did make me think that doing the natural sequel with Bean reprising the role could be good, but then I remembered that if it’s as mediocre as this, I’m going to have to punch myself in the nuts for ever thinking it was a good idea. That being said, they quite bizarrely (in my humble opinion) give a definite lead in to a potential sequel, not in the form of the Odyssey but of Virgil’s Aenead instead. How bizarre. Maybe they thought that would swell the pants of the history nerds who were in the theatre showing Troy by mistake when they were expecting Shrek 2, Soul Plane or something equally intellectual.

Ultimately I didn’t care that they’d cut the Olympian gods out of the story that much, I think it could have succeeded without them, had it been a better film of course. But as wiser scholars than I have pointed out, in some ways it does gut the film even further. When you consider the fact that ye olde stories essentially used to push the same line: humans were the playthings of the gods, blessed or cursed dependant on their mood, honoured for their virtues sometimes but more often tormented for their arrogance and hubris, and yet none of that carries over here. There’s definitely something lacking there. Also, the constant references to honour and immortality, despite the fact that it sounded as empty and repetitious as an episode of Star Trek devoted to Klingons striding aggressively about spouting the same crap, don’t really mean much outside of that mythic context.

Do we blame writer Daniel Benioff for the script’s failings solely? Surely the man that wrote such a quality piece of work as the novel and the screenplay for the most excellent 25th Hour would have presented a better screenplay initially had it not been for the meddling of probably teams and rooms full of suits. I can’t believe that he came up with this script on his own without interference. I choose not to believe that it’s his fault. At the very least we can’t blame him for Orlando Bloom’s mostly awful performance as Paris. I think there’s only one person to blame for that, pretty boy. I mean you, yes, You!

I do remember being curious when I first heard that such a film was being made, and I did have moderate expectations which were not really met, but then I didn’t feel that it sucked so unrelentingly that I regretted the expense of money and time. Despite the fact that it is a shining example of big budget mediocrity I did enjoy it somewhat, but didn’t really get that ‘epic’ feel from the proceedings. Which is a damn shame. War can be, after all, such fun sometimes.

5 ways at least that this should have been way better, by way of less Brad Pitt and more actual acting out of 10.

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"Before my time is done I will look down on your corpse and smile. " - Troy

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