Sing in me, muse. As dawn spread her rosy fingers across the sky over Malibu, the face that launched 1,000 ships turned blue eyes toward bluer ocean. Fair was the visage and furrowed the brow of the one blessed by the gods with unearthly beauty, calm, and grace. "Hmmm," Brad Pitt thought to himself, "Russell Crowe did pretty well by himself with Gladiator, and I've got better calf muscles than he does. Maybe I should give that sword-and-spear thing a go. Hey, Jen! Get me Wolfgang Petersen on the phone! And maybe that guy from Chopper—you know, Eric Bana. He could use some help after The Hulk."
In Troy (which opens Friday, May 14, at the Metro and many other theaters), Pitt's Achilles is a perfect Hollywood projection of the unfathomable killer: blond, blank, fearless, leonine, serene. He's the WMD of the classical era, a free-agent warrior with allegiance to no flag. He signs up to besiege Troy for smiling imperialist Greek king Agamemnon (Brian Cox, looking like a kilted, dreadlocked refugee from Burning Man) for the simplest of reasons: He wants to be famous, just like any Hollywood star. "This war will never be forgotten, nor will the heroes who fight in it," promises Achilles' pal Odysseus (Sean Bean).
"Hero" has a very specific meaning here: It refers to the designated fighters, one from each side, who duke it out in solitary, proxy combat. The winner wins for all, and the loser dies for all, sparing their brethren-in-arms from unnecessary slaughter. Agamemnon intends to use Achilles against the Trojans' hero, Hector (Bana), son of King Priam (Peter O'Toole). Though drawn by the prospect of fame, Achilles resents his lot; he's just a warrior and not a king, which nobody lets him forget. This hired spear scoffs at his employer: "Imagine a king who fights his own battles—wouldn't that be a sight?"
Homer is famously bloody, and director Petersen (The Perfect Storm, Das Boot) has a respect for blood. Pitt is lithe and graceful with javelin and short sword; he confuses opponents by looking to one side— revealing his stronger right profile— before lunging back for a death strike. Mighty Ajax appears with his hammer on the Greek beachhead at Troy, scattering men like an LOTR orc. Hector is no less lethal, though he alone seems troubled by the war into which he's been drawn. With an adoring wife and cooing baby son, he's got more to lose than just an army. When his lover-boy baby brother, Paris (LOTR heartthrob Orlando Bloom), imagines defending his stolen Helen on the battlefield, even dying if necessary, Hector rebukes him: "There's nothing glorious about it, nothing poetic." He rejects the very star system of Hellenic combat that Achilles embraces. Therefore, for Homer, both men must die—each undone by his own tragic flaw. Therefore, for Hollywood, Achilles must learn to despise combat—under the influence, of course, of a good woman.
Which is not to say that there's much romance so far as women are concerned. In a movie R-rated for its violence (edited to a bloody blur with a few lingering shots of gore), there are no naked female breasts but plenty of hairless, glistening male chests. Whether brandished by Pitt, Bloom, or Bana, the pec is the new tit in Hollywood. Troy doesn't exactly evoke homoerotic titters like an old Steve Reeves gladiator movie, but almost none of the women registers as a real person. Worst is German model-turned-statue Diane Kruger as Helen, who leaves her hoary husband (Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, played by Brendan Gleason) for dewy Paris. Then there's the Trojan temple virgin Briseis (Rose Byrne of I Capture the Castle), who gets captured, taken to Achilles' tent, then works her magic on the stone-faced killer. None of this is remotely believable; only the scenes between Hector and his wife (Saffron Burrows) suggest anything like real love or tenderness.
Since it runs out of ideas long before the Hector-Achilles showdown (at about the two-hour point), the 165-minute Troy begs for distractions or subplots along the way. Alas, you'll have to supply your own by venturing to the rest room and snack bar. There are no sex scenes, only tasteful dissolves. Cox is by far the most entertaining presence—like George C. Scott transported back from Dr. Strangelove, or Donald Rumsfeld when the mask of civility falls off. (Although Bean does score with barbs and smirks as Odysseus, suggesting Petersen should've skipped past The Iliad and straight to a sequel: The Odyssey.)
Troy is a movie that could use a few hobbits. There's no comic relief—no relief at all, in fact—and none of Peter Jackson's sense of how to alternate between the large and small. Petersen is all epic, all sweep, all CG–enhanced aerial photography. He gives you an Aegean turned white with sail but forgets about the galley slaves stroking within the Greek fleet. Granted, Aragorn and company don't have much depth of character, but Tolkien gives them textual depth. Having Homer as a source ought to accomplish the same for Petersen, yet I suspect that few modern readers know Zeus from Hera. When Julie Christie appears, lovely for the ages, as Achilles' mother, Thetis, there's no suggestion that she's a goddess who may've conferred her immortality on her only son. (Yes, he's inherited her looks, but this is Brad Pitt we're talking about.)
When a shaken Hector tells his father how Achilles lobbed a spear from 1,000 yards to pierce the eye of a comrade on horseback, he calls it "an impossible throw." The implication is that Achilles is a god and therefore invincible. By humanizing the warrior and making him a modern, rounded Hollywood hero, Troy forgets that their flatness—like the frieze figures on a temple—is part of the ancients' eternal grandeur. Each has a signature name epithet. Odysseus is crafty. Achilles is brave. Hector is the tamer of horses. Judged by that standard, Pitt is pretty but Troy is vacant. It's an empty, well-wrought vessel that's still eclipsed by the ruins on which it's built.