My kingdom for a Trojan horse
Not long into "Troy," the new blockbuster starring Brad Pitt and his new muscles, the screenplay sets up a war-movie paradox.
As forces gather to besiege the Trojans, a combat-hungry young man receives advice from a battle-seasoned mentor. There's nothing glorious about slaying enemies in war, says the older man, or about forfeiting one's own life on the killing field.
The movie has already sent an opposite message, though. In the very first scene, two kings agree to avoid a full-scale skirmish by setting up a punishing physical contest between Achilles and a towering, brutal-looking giant. Achilles wins, of course, and his athletically stunning feat is depicted in slow motion, like an instant replay in a TV sporting event.
In other words, the scene is designed to make killing seem glorious. So why should we believe the battle-seasoned mentor who says it's nasty and squalid? Wolfgang Petersen, who directed the picture, evidently doesn't think so. And he does his cinematic best to keep us from thinking so either.
The fact that "Troy" has muddle-headed values does not mean that it lacks entertainment value. "Inspired" by "The Iliad" of Homer, the picture centers on the Trojan War and the incident that touched it off, the lovely Helen's decision to leave her Spartan husband, Menelaus, and sneak away to Troy with Paris, her new boyfriend.
This prompts the peeved Mycenaeans to launch 1,000 ships, set up armed camps on the Trojan beach, and besiege the city-state for a decade.
Along with Menelaus and the lovers, key players in the conflict include the monarchs Agamemnon and Priam, the warriors Achilles and Hector, and their protégés, callow youths who find themselves way over their heads in peril.
Young viewers with video-game aesthetics might find the movie disappointing in the exploding-fireball departments. But if you enjoy old-fashioned epics, you'll find many echoes of 1950s-style extravaganzas like "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments," not to mention the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" spin-offs that used to be imported from Europe for audiences naive enough to overlook bad voice-dubbing and hokey special effects.
The movie trade calls these "sword-and-sandal" movies, and "Troy" is a textbook specimen of the breed.
In the time-honored Hollywood tradition of ignoring historical tradition, the film supplements its mainly Homeric plot by borrowing the Trojan Horse incident from "The Aeneid" of Virgil, a bit of artistic license that guarantees what moviegoers love most - the comforting familiarity of a legend they've known since childhood.
In a more dubious and puzzling decision, Mr. Petersen and his collaborators have omitted the Olympian gods and goddesses seen by Homer's contemporaries as active controllers of individual and collective destiny.
Replacing them are the sorts of psychological concepts embraced by the modern world: the obsessiveness that makes Paris and Helen so fixated on each other, the fear of oblivion that drives Achilles to risk his life for immortal fame, and so on. This hardly deepens the film, but it provides more of the familiarity that should make "Troy" a box-office hit.
Pitt's buffed-up musculature makes him a credible Achilles, if not a particularly imposing one, just as Diane Kruger's beauty gives us a believable Helen, without that special something her ancient counterpart must have had.
Peter O'Toole is a profoundly human Priam, melancholy and dignified at once. By contrast, the gifted Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson are less impressive than usual.
In sum, this is hardly an "Iliad" adaptation for the ages. But if you're hankering for sand, sandals, and swordplay, this could be the movie for you.
• Rated R; contains violence and sensuality.