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Photograph by Alex Bailey

Achilles, Heel Thyself: Brad Pitt contemplates war in 'Troy.'

Go Trojans!

Wolfgang Petersen's 'Troy' is huge, smart and loaded with barbaric splendor

By Richard von Busack

A READER of The Iliad might not take sides. Achilles was obviously a man to be avoided at all costs; on the other hand, Homer also describes Troy's champion, Hector, as a "mad dog." Nevertheless, the movie Troy turns you partisan fast. Wolfgang Peterson's huge but smart epic pits persecuted true lovers vs. a murderous king of kings, Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Troy tells of a great war fought under false pretenses, of savages at the gates of a doomed city.

There is much that is exciting here, satisfying in the full-bodied tradition of epic making--and without the wearisome shock editing of so many new war movies. You can see what's going on when the troops clash or the city burns. The Maltese and Mexican locations provide the necessary wine-dark seas and rosy-fingered dawns. Unfortunately, Peterson has made the same mistake director Robert Wise did in the last huge version of the tale, 1955's Helen of Troy: casting a modestly talented "new face" (Diane Kruger) as Helen. Kruger and Saffron Burrows, who plays Hector's wife, Andromache, share a laughable reaction shot during the showdown between the invader Achilles and the defender Hector. The two easily followed the direction "look beautiful" but had more trouble with "look worried."

The lame cross-cutting is a pity, since the battle of Hector and Achilles outside Troy's walls is a masterpiece of cinematic sword fighting--a sequence of exquisite tension, between Hector's last look of disgust at Helen as the mammoth Trojan gates open and the shock of the victor's mistreatment of his dead foe's body.

As in the day of studio epics, the roles seem perfectly engineered for the stars. As Helen-stealing Paris, Orlando Bloom provides the hearts and flowers, as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean. Strangely, Bloom never really looks like a movie star until you give him a bow and arrow, as finally happens after the Trojans accept their gift horse. (Odd that Petersen, so brilliant at presenting claustrophobia in Das Boot, doesn't give us a look inside the wooden steed.) Sean Bean makes a guileful Odysseus. The casting of Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson (as King Menelaus) as brothers is equally inspired: shaggy, barrel-chested and half-psychotic, the Atreus brothers are more ruthless than the Weinsteins. The gods don't show up in this version of The Iliad. Still, Cox, roaring his rage against the flames of Troy, could pass for Ares, God of War, any day.

Finally, Brad Pitt as Achilles is just right, in the same way the similarly arrogant Charlton Heston was always just right in his hero roles. Pitt was born to play a man who sulks in his tent. A warrior born before the Irony Age, Pitt embodies Achilles' self-satisfaction and rage, pointing out Troy to his boatload of shock troopers--"It's yours! Take it!" Pitt's Achilles is as stunning a piece of antiheroing as a big movie star has delivered up with in years. In the poem, the world's greatest warrior complains (as Robert Fitzgerald translates), "I hate / like I hate Hell's own gate that man who hides / one thought within him while he speaks another." The emphasis in the film is on the betrayal of Achilles--and on the betrayal of any warrior since, whose bravery overwhelmed his common sense, at the cost of his life.

Troy (R; 163 min.), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, written by David Benioff, based on the epic by Homer, photographed by Roger Pratt and starring Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Brian Cox, opens Friday.

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From the May 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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