The buff, brief title Troy suits the star of director Wolfgang Petersen’s CliffsNotes version of an epic, based on Homer’s ”The Iliad” and set in an ancient time of personal trainers and self-tanners. Brad Pitt is indeed prodigiously buff and sometimes in no briefs at all as Achilles, the sleek warrior whose prowess in battle is unmatched, but whose attitude (and heel tendon) needs work. Pitt is trained, he’s exfoliated, he’s moisturized, he’s in tip-top operating condition for a 40-year-old movie star of moderate acting range and genetically blessed good fortune; he’s as golden to look at as Troy — Troy Donahue.
And from such trust in the Q rating of one mortal movie star to embody one of the world’s greatest works of literature, O motivated students of ancient Greece and modern Hollywood, is hubris born. Just as the speech-spouting script by David Benioff (”25th Hour”) jettisons the active role played by the gods (described so lyrically by Homer) in the outcome of the Trojan War (the Greek word for such a major text change is ”chutzpah”), so Petersen backs skittishly away from taking the gods-vs.-humans stuff seriously. The balance of power in this laddy ”Iliad” lies in favor of the power of man — particularly of Petersen, who caused oceans to roil in ”The Perfect Storm” — to stock a toga-and-sandal pic with pretty actors and keep a directorial finger firmly on the CGI machinery. The result is a pageant long but not deep, noisy but not stirring, expensive but not sumptuous. In a post-”LOTR” age — ye gods, in a post-”Braveheart” age, let alone in a contemporary time of terror, paranoia, and ceaseless skirmish — this is not enough to warrant such trumpets and drumbeats, such Enya-like keening between tableaux of Men Behaving Beefily.
Here are highlights from the plot, sung better by Homer and obscured on screen by vacantly portentous declarations along the lines of ”War is young men dying and old men talking” and ”Even enemies can show respect”: Though many have come to believe that Achilles is part god (certainly Julie Christie, who cameos as his mother, is all goddess), the restless warrior knows he’s not. For him, immortality will have to be the result of good word of mouth. He’s a classic flawed hero with a flawless understanding of publicity — and so, although he dislikes Agamemnon (Brian Cox), the ruthless commander of the Greeks, Achilles fells foes for him.
Craving fame, and foretelling the good press that comes of valor in a really big war, he signs on for a doozy, sparked by an affront to honor: Paris (Orlando Bloom), younger playboy son of King Priam of Troy (Peter O’Toole), has stolen away Helen (Diane Kruger) from King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), who’s not only the king of Sparta but also Agamemnon’s barking brother. And so, partly to recapture the possession that is his wife, but also (in this unsubtle version created during a time of war in Iraq) to assert bellicose sovereignty, Menelaus enlists Agamemnon to fight the Trojans with him. Paris’ honorable older brother Hector (Eric Bana) is forced to engage in a battle for which he has no heart, but at least there’s an upside: Bana’s strong, modest, heroic performance as an estimable man is a beacon of quiet charisma in an on-location desert of inconsequence.
”Is there no one else?” Achilles kvetches at one point when summoned for the umpteenth time to deploy his delts and lats, like a dreamboat lifeguard who’d rather lie in the sun than dive into the pool. But when Bana isn’t on the screen (or when Cox isn’t having an excellent adventure, growling and snarling), there ISN’T anyone else, really. As Paris, Bloom briefly reaches, Legolas-like, for a bow and arrow — but the gesture only draws attention to the cramped space in which the stirring young actor has to work, compared with what he could make of a well-handled quiver as an elf. And as Helen, the ravishing wife of the king of Sparta, Kruger (a placid German model discovered after an actress search that launched a thousand head shots) turns the beauty of yore into that of arm candy whose smolder might just launch a scuffle between her date and any commodities trader who hits on her at a Manhattan cigar bar.
”The gods envy us because we’re mortal,” Achilles declares. But ”Troy” retains too much pride in the power of mortals to conjure a thousand ships out of pixels. The power of an ancient saga cannot be manufactured by interspersing scenes of lunging swordplay with shots of Pitt’s sculpted glutes as Achilles lounges with a Trojan lovely — heroic as those buttocks may be.