Rating: C for chuckles and cringes and combat.
Summary: The legendary Trojan War, but without the gods and historical accuracy, but lots of ham.
Ah, we are back to my favorite genre, the historical epic. After the year 2000 and with the help of Gladiator and The Patriot, Hollywood saw an uptick in big sweeping, action-packed historical epics- preferably those where they could incorporate a phalanx of some sort: Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, King Arthur, 300, and The Last Samurai all came out within three years of each other. Hell, I’d even throw the first Pirates of the Caribbean into that nest of costumes. (There are 3 Orlando Bloom movies on that list! Keep ‘em coming! No, please don’t.) While some of these worked out pretty well and for the most part, they each have their “YES, THIS MOVIE IS GREAT” moments, there are definitely a few that are just not good. One of these is Troy.
Troy isn’t always terrible but it’s also not good for its intended reasons so I have to dock it a few (re: a lot). It is strictly plot movement and spectacle: very surface-level, gratuitous, and inconsistent. There’s no character development even with its leading man, Brad Pitt; the movie doesn’t pose a lot of interesting questions about its subjects. Rather, it skates to get to the visuals. It’s a long movie, clocking in at over 3 hours… but somehow still doesn’t really get anywhere. Based on the Trojan War, Troy has very little to do with its mythology. I’m going to leave out the actor’s names here, because reasons:
Trojan prince Paris essentially kidnaps Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus. Menelaus goes to his brother Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae who has been looking for a reason to attack Troy; and so they do along with other peoples he’s already conquered. A side plot that is more interesting but not elaborated: Odysseus recruits Achilles (demigod, not mentioned) on behalf of Agamemnon because Odysseus wants to be a good king and protect his people even if that means supporting the wrong side. A side plot that is less interesting but is elaborated: Achilles is conflicted with his reputation, pride, and what’s expected of him, but not really the issue of war itself. Everyone here? Cool.
Troy was one of those movies that I really liked when it came out and I genuinely thought it was good. I think I was mostly blinded by Bloom’s pretty face. 10 or so years later, with some more knowledge and behind-the-scenes studying under my belt, I now realize this was strictly for the awesome cast (Eric Bana! Sean Bean! Vincent Regan! Jeor Mormont/James Cosmo! Brian Cox! Brendan Gleeson! Peter O’Toole! Tyler Mane!!!!!!) and better-than-average action. On a pure entertainment level, Troy is about an 7 out of 10. On a technical level, I’d have to give it about a 6. On a storytelling level (this is my “if I remove all the spectacle, is it still good?”) I’d give it about a 2. Maybe a 3. This isn’t purely script’s fault- it’s also the delivery, but I also can’t entirely blame the acting having read some reports of the studio stepping in or director Wolfgang Petersen wanting specific delivery. It’s a combination of a whole lot of things. (Veteran and legend O’Toole lamented he was requested to “pull faces,” so I can only make assumptions.)
I will say that within this genre, camp and ham work to emphasize the spectacle and height of everything. There are some hammy moments that work really, really well here. There’s a moment (above) when Agamemnon invades Troy and he just cackles as the city burns around him- WORKS. Jeor Mormont and some other pre-battle speeches a la “Are you not entertained!?” are fine, as these moments deserve it. However, there is a limit to how much ham one should eat while making a movie- Troy not only made itself a huge ham sandwich but also added lots and lots of cheese. Everyone suffers from bad lines and overacting. No one is safe! (“Then every son of Troy… shall dieeeeee.”) For a few people, this works (Cox) or their characters somehow got a temporary hall pass (Bana, Bean, thank goodness), but not everyone is as fortunate: Regan plays a veteran warrior but is somehow shocked by every single death he witnesses in this particular war, Gleeson rants whilst generously waving his arms, O’Toole is stuck in distress, Pitt pouts and broods, and Bloom, well… Blooms it up by looking concerned, entranced, or determined.
There are a lot of reaction shots. Unrelated, there’s this scene in Snatch where Turkish talks about crossing the street, realizing he’s about to get hit by a car, and pulling a stupid face; that’s pretty much what everyone does except for Pitt- his face stays the same as in that picture. Everyone in Troy gets hit by a Stupid Car.
At least the men get the action scenes to fall back on- the women are left with pretty much nothing. We get Rose Byrne and Diane Kruger in their first big roles and they get nothing. No single grant of character development, just plot movement tools. To make this all sadder is that:
- According to some reports, Petersen didn’t even want any female characters in this. Nice!
- Studio execs thought Troy at least needed a romance angle.
- Because that’s all women deserve and that’s all they’re good for. -_-
The movie halfheartedly attempts to make Briseis (Byrne) out to be the woman who was Achilles’ undoing, but she doesn’t actually affect him (I’d put this more in Priam’s hands); if anything, she’s nothing more than a female body on which he imposes his ideas. Kruger’s Helen comes off as delusional and self-centered, changing her mind a few times about whether to stay with Paris or not because the war is just about her marriage and there’s absolutely no way this is about pride or conquest or anything like that… Listen, I get Helen was young but that doesn’t mean she needs to be incompetent. What’s weird is that Helen has these flashing moments (she tells Paris at one point that even though they’re the same age, he’s younger than she ever was), but then they pull her back into the eyelash-batting-teenage-dreamer thing. For shame! Kruger and Bloom eyebrow wag at each other (what’s with young actors and eyebrow acting?), which is sweet as long as you don’t mind their self-obsession. And other characters feed into it! They all get lines about how it’s perfectly okay to go to war because it’s real love. I’m paraphrasing here but it’s not like they don’t know:
Helen: I don’t want you to leave Sparta! You made me feel alive!
Paris: Then come with me! (Actual line:) If you come, we’ll never be safe. Men will hunt us, the gods will curse us, but I’ll love you.
Helen: Ok, no one else but us is in danger! In the name of love! (gets to Troy, sees one battle, feels guilty, disregards the war is no longer about her) I’m going back to Menelaus to prevent more war.
Priam: Despite endangering my entire city, you must stay because Paris really loves you! (Actual line:) Women have always loved Paris and he has loved them back but this one is different.
Hector: You must stay! I mean, I had you on a boat, almost sent you back, then decided not to, then tried to talk my father into sending you back on a boat, but my brother needs you today because LOVE.
Helen: … Ok!
And then the kicker…
Paris: (the city is invaded) Actually, I now have a sense of responsibility. I’m going to stay and find my dad, try to save more people. Meet you on the other side? We’ll be together in spirit! Love conquers all!
THIS ENTIRE THING WAS YOUR FAULT. DON’T TRY TO PLAY THE HERO NOW, LEGOLAS. (rage quits)
It’s safe to say that the bulk of the film’s efforts went into the action sequences, which are the most watchable parts even if the CG hasn’t aged all that well. Yes, we get a phalanx, we get mass chaos, we get arrows ON FIRE. Even if some of the battle strategies have a lot of holes (like attacking the camp at night for the element of surprise… and then waiting for dawn to push forward) or if the action is narrated (“Let’s stop here otherwise we’ll be in range of their archers!”), visually, it’s a lot of fun. This is before everyone went crazy with the handheld stuff; the hand-to-hand combat is fairly linear with a couple of gratuitous “LOOK HOW TOUGH HE IS” shots. There are some unnecessary reaction shots sprinkled into the action- I guess this was an effort to keep the women involved. The choreography is a standout here- as intricate as it is, everyone seems to really be swinging at each other. It all culminates in a vicious fight between Hector and Achilles, a sequence that still holds up minus that damn rock. (Also, Ned Stark straight up slays the Lord Commander. For the Watch!)
I have to admit, Troy succeeds in its spectacle as well as its unintended camp. Dialogue-wise, about half is laughable, a quarter is cringe-inducing, and a quarter is fine- it is entertaining on some level, just not in the way it’s meant to be. It’s also kind of fun to see all the machismo and posturing fail in one way or another, both on and off the screen. They were aiming for Gladiator but I’d rank this behind 300 and (personally) behind King Arthur. There’s just an inflated sense of self-importance that doesn’t always work and drags along. If they reduced maybe 30% of that and also had as much fun with the script and characters as they did with the action, Troy might have been better than a good-bad movie.