A foolish young man makes eye contact with another man's beautiful wife. It's the beginning of an illicit love affair and the cause of a war that will leave tens of thousands dead and a kingdom in ruins. This is the story of Troy, a full-blooded Hollywood epic that marries old-fashioned historical drama to modern action film-making with impressive results. It certainly isn't blockbuster film-making by numbers. Troy defies convention by having no central hero to root for and refusing to throw in its lot with either side in the war, the Greeks or the Trojans. Instead, it's an admirably complex, multi-character drama which asks us to care about (and deplore) people on both sides. It's also as spectacular and thrilling an action film as you're likely to see this summer.
The time is 1193 BC, the setting, the lands surrounding the Aegean Sea: modern day Greece and Turkey. King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), the tyrannical ruler of Mycenae has conquered most of the region but one kingdom has managed to resist his armies and remain independent. Troy is a strong and prosperous nation based around a city whose walls have proven impregnable to attack. Its monarch, King Priam (Peter O'Toole) has successfully negotiated a treaty with Agamemnon's brother, King Menelaus of Sparta (Brendan Gleeson) but this hard-won peace is to be shattered by one of Priam's own sons. Paris (Orlando Bloom), a naive and irresponsible young prince, falls in love with Menelaus' beautiful young wife, Helen (Diane Kruger) and he steals her away to Troy. The furious Spartan swears vengeance and his power-hungry brother is only too pleased to help.
Agamemnon calls all the Greek kings to his banner and a vast armada sets sail for Troy. Most feared among all the Greek warriors is Achilles (Brad Pitt), who commands his own Myrmirdon army. Achilles loathes Agamemnon but joins his campaign for the sake of the glory he believes will be his when Troy falls. On the Trojan side, the greatest fighter is Hector (Eric Bana), eldest son of King Priam and brother of Paris. Hector has his own misgivings. He's unhappy to be fighting a war on account of his playboy brother's latest dalliance. However, he's loyal to his father and he helps prepare the city and the Trojan army for war as Agamemnon's fleet draws ever nearer.
The background is sketched quickly and efficiently and most of Troy's two hours and forty minutes is devoted to the ensuing siege. No expense has been spared in staging the battles. Thousands upon thousands of men in armour hack at each other with swords, shoot blazing arrows and roll fireballs. The $185 million budget is all there on the screen. How much is real and how much is computer generated, I can't hope to guess. The effects are seamless. Still, it's the more intimate fight scenes that have the most impact, dramatically as well as visually. The savage grudge match between Achilles and Hector is the action highlight of the film. Director Wolfgang Petersen has done a tremendous job, depicting all this action and spectacle with real style and excitement and never losing sight of the story he's telling.
For once, there won't be a lot of historians carping about Hollywood inaccuracies since there's not much history here to get wrong. Very little is known about Troy other than it existed and was destroyed around 1000 years before Christ. The academics who do take issue with Troy will be from the classical studies department for the film takes its characters and storyline from Homer's The Iliad. The epic poem, written around 800 BC, was a much more fantastical tale, steeped in the mythology of the period and taking in gods, monsters and magic. These more fanciful elements have been stripped away by screenwriter David Benioff to leave a sword-and-sandal war story much more in the tradition of Gladiator and Braveheart than Clash Of The Titans. The same approach is being used for Jerry Bruckheimer's forthcoming take on King Arthur.
Benioff's script may not be entirely faithful but it is intelligent, as you would expect from the writer of Spike Lee's 25th Hour. He crams in a lot of story and detail between the battles without resorting to dry exposition and he deals with the lack of a central hero in interesting ways, never leaving us short of anyone to care about. His greatest achievement is how well developed the characters are, especially given the number of them. Here, as in 25th Hour, he's interested in the moral decisions people make and how they affect their destinies.
Achilles is much more than just a bare-chested hero role for Brad Pitt, although his fans won't be disappointed in that respect. He may perform heroic deeds but he's also vain, arrogant and at times a truly nasty piece of work. When Achilles fights Hector, we're rooting for Hector. Eric Bana's Trojan prince is the only real hero in the traditional sense and the moral centre of the film. Pitt and Bana both fill their roles nicely, Bana much more effective in Troy than he was in Hulk. There's also decent work from Rose Byrne as Achilles' captive and lover, Sean Bean as Agamemnon's wisest general and Orlando Bloom, a long way from Legolas as the weak Paris. The real scene-stealers are the elder stars, Brian Cox and Peter O'Toole. Cox devours the scenery gloriously as Agamemnon, providing the best movie villain for a long time, while O'Toole is more restrained as the decent King Priam, whose blind faith in the Gods proves to be his downfall. He has a scene with Brad Pitt that's powerful and moving and about a million miles from what you'd expect in a summer blockbuster. It's moments like this that will make Troy linger in your mind long after special effects shows like Van Helsing have faded away.