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Troy Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 29, 2007

    Troy Review
    When I first found out about this extended and unrated Director's Cut of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, I was extremely pleased that we would get a chance to reassess his flawed epic. Although a big fan of the original cut, I couldn't deny that its action seemed diluted and the huge drama of the Siege Of Troy - which according to Homer lasted for ten long years - was massively scaled-down. But now, with an extra half hour of footage placed back in, the story of the Greek invasion of the fabled city-state of Troy and the strong moral conundrums that the troubled heroes on both sides of the conflict must face gains a deeper resonance and a much more high-impact bite. It doesn't add ten years of war, of course, but it does make an already enjoyable film more satisfying.

    Bringing Homer's marathon tale The Iliad to the screen has, of course, been done before. But the tantalising prospect that telling the story of uber-warriors Achilles and Hector, trouble-causing, annihilation-catalysts Paris and Helen, power-hungry kings Agamemnon and Priam and filling the screen with a thousand ships and impossibly huge armies locked in savage combat is nevertheless a dauntingly colossal narrative and something of a logistical nightmare, even with modern technology doing a lot of the work. Obviously, given time and budgetary constraints, writer David Beniof would have to condense the ten-year campaign to a more accessible linear presentation that would still feature all those riveting elements that have made the tale such a terrific mythical extravaganza for a millennia's worth of young boys to re-enact. And it is a shame that Odysseus' line in the film about people talking about this war for an eternity sounds kind of hollow when all that we see are a clutch of melees spanning only a very short duration.

    “Of all the warlords loved by the Gods ... I hate him the most.”

    But the plot of the film should be applauded for supplying a bit more background to the war, in that the snatching of Spartan Queen Helen (Diane Kruger) by the rascally Trojan Prince Paris (a glass-jawed and horribly fragile-looking Orlando Bloom) is most certainly not the real reason for the Greek armada to set sail across the sparkling Aegean. Whilst Brendan Gleeson's impressively affronted King Menelaus would think nothing of obliterating a nation to rescue his pride and drag home his naughty wife, it is the nefarious machinations of his power-tripping brother King Agamemnon (Brian Cox eating up the scenery with relish, taramasolata and a kebab or two on the side) and his greedy country-devouring nature that sees the known world embroiled in a conflict that will shake its very foundations. Having long desired the wealth of Troy's golden city and its strategic position as a gateway to the unknown Great Eastern continent, Agamemnon finally sees his equally golden opportunity to attack his nemesis King Priam (Peter O'Toole prancing around in luxuriant robes and spouting “the Gods!” in seemingly every other line), the brazen, militaristic whisker-twirler gathering together an army larger than has ever been fielded before and descending on the sun-kissed citadel like a plague of hairy locusts. Of course, Agamemnon couldn't command the respect of all these thousands of men and inspire them to victory just by himself. But then he doesn't need to, for the ace up his bronze greave is having the sword-and-shield super celebrity that is the buffed-up, Adonis man-god Achilles (a pectorally-enhanced Brad Pitt in blonde tresses) on his side to spur the troops on to gory-glory. The two may not get along too well, and with Achilles purely a fame-seeker with no particular grievance against the Trojans and no interest at all in helping the greedy Agamemnon out of a jam, it falls to the wily King of Ithaca, the great storyteller-cum-warrior Odysseus (a curly-mopped Sean Bean) to appeal to the ultra-athlete's sense of destiny and blazing heroism. The relationship between these three disparate and egotistical men is the deciding factor upon which the saga hinges. Unlooked-for love will befall the tempestuous Achilles but this will only prove to be another incendiary device with which the ruthless King will manipulate his star-soldier into doing his bidding. Pitfalls, obstacles, bad tactics and plain old misfortune may dog the Greeks but Odysseus' keen mind and fox-like devious nature will see to it that Agamemnon's plans will eventually come to fruition, but the interesting thing is that none of these three critical lynchpins actually act for the benefit of the other two. They may be on the same side, but they act purely out of self-preservation and their own passionate zeal. A great early line from Agamemnon comes when his tactical aide Nestor (John Shrapnel, no stranger to the attire of the ancient world, himself, having appeared in Gladiator and several Roman-set TV dramas) insists that the war cannot be won without Achilles toeing the line. “Achilles?” snorts the indignant King, “He can't be controlled. He's as likely to fight us as the Trojans.”

    But whilst the Greeks have all the colourful, roguish characters, the Trojans are a self-pitying, doom-laden bunch who are saddled with the truly awful and totally unbelievable Romeo And Juliet coupling of Paris and Helen. She may be reputed to have had a face beautiful enough to launch a thousand ships, but I doubt I'd board the Mersey Ferry to be in the company of Kruger's bland and expressionless model. There is as much emotion in her performance as there is in a seafood salad and her chemistry with Bloom's pathetic Paris is non-existent. And for his part, I find it hard to believe that this is the same person who lashed so much derring-do into the role of Will Turner in the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy and vigour, conviction and sheer depth into his last-ditch crusader Balian in Kingdom Of Heaven (which I really do admire, by the way). Even though this Director's Cut expands their story - with more nudity and heart-pledging - their aspect is when Troy, as a movie, comes unglued. Neither has the power to invest credibility into their character, and often come across as performers in a school play, their deliveries flat and lifeless. Paris may be a lover not a fighter - as his splendidly comical duel with Menelaus proves - but the weight of war and the cost of his actions should take a heavy toll on his conscience that we see and feel. A depth and gravity that Orlando Bloom just doesn't exhibit in the part, I'm afraid.

    Much better value is Eric Bana's tousle-haired Trojan champion Hector, Priam's legendary favourite son and as much a charismatic figurehead for the besieged city as Achilles is to the Greek invasion force. Bana is a good actor, but not a great one. In fact I would rate him a much lesser talent than Pitt. But he is terrific as the lion-hearted Hector - a do-or-die battler when necessary but a devout family man at his core. His scenes with his wife Andromache - played by the gorgeous Saffron Burrows (who shows some real emotion during the frequent cutaways to her seen standing atop the high walls watching her man locked in mortal combat) - are touching, if a little trite. Their relationship is much more believable than that of Paris and Helen, or especially Achilles and the snatched priestess, Briseis (Rose Byrne), who turns the warrior's head - “the spoils of war,” as a jealous Agamemnon christens her, lewd new strategies filling his pompous head. Obviously written as the nice guy, Bana's Hector is forced into seeing the humanity of his enemies and governed by religious law to follow set principles of fair play. Thus, even when engaged in thrusting swords into men's bellies and delivering crunching head-buts, the sense that his thoughts reside primarily with kith and kin and a peaceful resolution is still dominant. He doesn't want this war and understands that this time, after years of splendid resilience against other foes, they may not hold out for long. Although greatly angered and distressed by his wimpish brother's antics, he will still suffer any humiliation and animosity in order to protect him.

    “Brother, do you love me?”

    “The last time you asked me that, you were ten years old and you had just stolen father's horse. What have you done now?”

    And whilst the two macho leads pout and preen, glower and taunt, the rest of the cast reassuringly nudge their characters into view without disgrace. Sean Bean's Odysseus cracks jokes and rubs his bearded chin with a "just-pleased-to-be-here” demeanour that is as disarming as it is deceptive. The huge Tyler Mane (Sabre-Tooth in the first X-Men movie and now a hulking Michael Myers in Rob Zombie's Halloween) proves to be an indomitable aggressor as the bloodthirsty Greek warlord Ajax. This new cut of the film expands his screen-time too, with more butchery to cringe at, though his bellowing declaration on the battlefield that he is “the devourer of men's souls” is sadly quite naff. Vincent Regan, as Achilles' Myrmidon lieutenant offers a likable and, strangely, long-suffering turn that can now be viewed as a dry run for his infinitely more engrossing and solid performance as the Spartan Captain in 300. Garrett Hedlund as the doomed Patroclus, cousin of Achilles, is a loose stitch in the ancient ensemble, however - much too Californian surfer-dude to pass muster as the natural born killer's eager young protégé. But look among the ranks of the Trojan defenders and you can see some stalwart British thesps rallying to the cause. The proud, ever-warring James Cosmo - excellent in Braveheart, in which Brendan Gleeson cut his sword-swinging teeth playing his son - is terrifically stout-hearted and barrel-chested as Priam's chief commander Glaucus. Nigel Terry pops up as Archeptolemus and even Trevor Eve - Shoestring, himself (who remembers that, then?) - can be seen toiling away in the shadow of O'Toole's Priam, looking bizarrely like Joe Pesci in spite of his beard and long hair.

    “I have endured what no one on Earth has endured before. I have kissed the hands of the man who killed my son.”

    Peter O'Toole, in parts equally noble and dignified, pantomimic and over-ripe, has a ball with the role of the fate-squashed King Priam. He lets his bright sparkly blue eyes act for him during many scenes of high-rise battlefield observation and when it comes to hamming it up, there are few more capable of making it look good. Winning plaudits for acting Pitt off the screen during one crucial and moving confrontation, O'Toole does indeed seem to be having a great time luxuriating in his own mellifluous tones and archly developed sense of theatrical status. Yet as corny as some of his lines undoubtedly are, he nevertheless imbues them with grace and refinement. The script makes Priam out to be much nicer and more tolerant than he was, in fact, said to have been, but then he is playing off the throaty belligerent excesses of regular villain Brian Cox, whose Agamemnon is, here, the complete antithesis of his serene majesty. It would have been nice to have seen the two actually converse, their diametrically opposed viewpoints would have added a delicious political bite to the film. We just have to make do with the mysterious, morose and mournful meeting between Priam and Achilles.

    “My Prince, the Boatman waits for us. I say we make him wait ... a little longer!

    Pre-empting the classical fighting styles seen in abundance in 300, Troy's combat choreography is actually terrific to watch. Taking their cue from the artwork found on ancient pots, tapestries and marble, the fight arrangers developed a system for Brad Pitt's prime warrior that is breathtakingly athletic. Far-reaching overhead lunges with sword and spear; spinning 360-degree arcs of slicing 'n' dicing; an Olympian javelin throw that you could believe would travel on forever were it not for the all-too vulnerable flesh that gets in its way - tremendously displayed by a performer so intent on getting the physical side of things perfect that his usually fine acting takes a very noticeable dip in standard. But Pitt excels as Achilles the fighting free spirit, to the point were we can forgive the amateur posturing and the petulance that clouds the brooding intensity that we know he is capable of - with things like Interview With The Vampire and Legends Of The Fall presenting ample evidence of it. But if rage and intense self-importance were the founding stones of Achilles' personality then Pitt has captured the hero very well indeed. It is unfortunate that he chooses to speak in some inexplicable form of English theatrical voice because it is something that he cannot maintain for long and sounds quite ludicrous at times. Lines such as “Play your tricks on me ... but not my cousin,” sound simply dreadful coming from his pout. But give him a weapon and set him loose and the star assures us of his utter conviction to bring Achilles to sinew-bursting life. Just check out the awesomely casual shrug of indifference he does when Hector hurls his own spear at him, and his incredibly relentless charge at the towering Thessalonian champion during his own powerful introduction. And, folks, the skills that Achilles and all of his fellow Old World warriors exhibit are much more explicit in Petersen's extended cut, you'll be pleased to know.

    “Go home, prince. Drink some wine. Make love to your wife. Tomorrow, we'll have our war.”

    Make no mistake about it, the violence is now extreme. Finally going beyond Gladiator's raw aggression, Troy practically bathes in blood. Every battle is extended with limb-lopping, blood-flinging zeal, bringing the carnage of ancient combat well and truly into your face. Of course, it is not hard to see why Petersen has opted to serve this ferocious version up at long last. The huge success and popularity of Zack Snyder's impressive 300 (see separate review) has proved that blade and flesh interaction is definitely top of the sword-and-sandal crowd's agenda. But whereas the extended and far bloodier edition of Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur was met with apathy because the violence just seemed tedious and unexciting when drawn-out a little bit more, Troy becomes vital and immediate, relentless in its desire to inflict grisly death and mutilation. An old complaint was that the big battle scenes were just people rushing past the camera, with shields obscuring all the gory details. Well, that grievance no longer holds up, folks. This version is positively brimming with claret - from wicked arrow-hits to throat-slashings, from spiky impalements to bodies cleaved apart beneath the wheels of chariots, it's got the lot, making the theatrical cut seem like a CBeebies show. But the cumulative effect of these more gruesome battles isn't just one of gore for gore's sake, the scenes themselves run differently and feel bigger and more important than before. The tone, itself, shifts quite noticeably with the additional ferocity making Troy a far less carefree romp than it first appeared to be. For not only have the battles been augmented with more savagery and blood-letting, but they also have more dialogue in-between the sword-thrusts that adds a further cutthroat dimension to the proceedings. The effect of this is to make the scenes feel more rounded and engrossing. Maybe just a line or two here and there as the bodies tumble and the gore sprays but these extra little sound-bites stretch out the action and give it a deeper resonance and much more dramatic weight. Even the ultimate confrontation between the two opposing kings is lent more impact by a verbal exchange that didn't exist in the theatrical cut, thereby granting it a more satisfyingly grim epitaph.

    Do these extensions make Troy a better film, though?

    Well, for me, the answer is a resounding yes. It now carries a greater impact than before and some of the more interesting characters, such as Odysseus, get some welcome new scenes in which to breathe. There is a slightly better pace to the story now as it feels less rushed and contrived and there is a palpable sense of dread as the conclusion draws near, as you realise that this time Petersen isn't pulling any punches and that the “innocent” citizens of Troy are in for a very rough time.

    Yet despite my enthusiasm for this cut, there is still something about it that really aggravates me. The most notable problem with this revamped version of the film is the appalling chopping and changing of James Horner's epic score. Although Horner's replacing of Gabriel Yared was met with indignation in some quarters, I have always enjoyed his music for this film and had certainly gotten used to its place within it over the last few years. Scenes such as Achilles storming the beach and rampaging towards the steps of the Temple Of Apollo, or his awesome duel with Hector were excellently rousing and pulsating pieces of acoustic machismo that were enhanced enormously by his orchestral wall of sound. But here they have been completely altered and replaced with different, and decidedly, lesser tracks. In fact, and this is just plain silly, the Hector/Achilles scrap is now played out beneath the completely ill-fitting title theme that Danny Elfman created for the Planet Of The Apes remake. Not only does this possibly ruin the impetus and tone for the fight that fans of the film may cherish, but it is also completely anachronistic, too. The world of Troy is musically one of sweeping, lush romance, driving pomp and ceremony, broad action and no small amount of ethnic crooning. This industrial percussive cue just sounds too out of place and distracts from the action instead of enhancing it, whereas the original piece was perfectly synchronised with the on-screen action. Other pivotal scenes suffer from such musical re-working and there's even a very brief piece that, if you listen, is part of Basil Poledouris' score for Starship Troopers. This sort of thing annoys me because there was no reason to tamper with the score in the first place. Even in the extended cuts of Gladiator, Kingdom Of Heaven and Jackson's Rings Trilogy, the rescoring was seamless integrated, so this just seems like a curious and clumsy oversight.

    “This will be the greatest war the world has ever seen. We need the greatest warrior.”

    So, on the whole, Wolfgang Petersen's recut version of Troy is a success in my eyes. These may not be the best performances around, but everybody does indeed benefit from their extra lines and screen-time. The subject feels more detailed, and richer, as opposed to just longer and bloodier. The stakes are definitely raised and the ferocious denouement is far more tragic and powerful than it first appeared, the once overt amorality of having the audience not fully able to choose a side in the conflict is now more damaging to our own feelings, as once the Greeks rampage through the streets it is hard to sympathise with them at all ... and we feel slightly dirty and betrayed once their bloodlust fully manifests itself.

    The greatest cinematic treatment of this story has yet to be produced. But, for now, Petersen's ambitious take will do just fine. Let's just hope that someone gets around to crafting Odysseus' long trip home - The Odyssey - at some point ... preferably with Sean Bean reprising the role.