Since The Lord Of The Rings, the modern epic has a hell of a lot to live up to. This is something Troy director Wolfgang Petersen is all too aware of, having attempted in interviews to distance his pricey reworking of Homer's epic poem The Iliad from Peter Jackson's fantasy behemoth. Rings was great, but it didn't look real, he said. Troy isn't monsters clashing in some distant twilight reality. It's human beings warring the living shit out of each other in glaring sunlight. With lots of blood.
Only The Return Of The King, with its huge, awe-infusing battle scenes, is going to be the freshest war epic in the Troy-viewer's mind, so the comparison is unavoidable. And, by comparison, Troy is more attention-grabbing than great.
Petersen stacks up the numbers, with 1,000-odd Greek ships impressively clouding Troy's horizon and tens of thousands of javelin-wielding warriors slamming into each other with a thunderclap clash of metal during the first major battle. It's all certainly gawp-worthy, but strangely lacking in emotional thwack. The problem is not so much in the pay-off - which is technically amazing - but in the set-up. Frankly, the first hour or so is as stiff and awkward as half the cast's English accents. Key relationships are rushed into play before the actors' chemistries have had time to brew, while exposition-heavy scripting makes for some stodgy dialogue. How many times do we have to be told that Achilles (Pitt) is only in it for the glory? At least four, apparently.
Even more pertinent is the fact that we first stumble upon the central romance, between Paris (Bloom) and Helen (Diane Kruger), a few days into its development, then watch it ditched on a sideline once the war machines start rolling. It's there purely to serve the plot; if you want any insight into how this passion could be so strong that the young couple would be willing to risk shattering their kingdoms, you've come to the wrong movie.
Thankfully, though, Petersen's cast is strong enough to tidy things up once the Greek fleet hits the Trojan beaches. Eric Bana smoulders with a doomy intensity as Trojan champion Hector, marking him out as a man whose humanity has never been smothered by his martial prowess. Brian Cox, meanwhile, offers great sneer value as Agamemnon, the kind of leader who only wants to avoid bloodshed because it means the loss of enemy troops that he wants to rule over. And Sean Bean shines out as Odysseus, the sardonic, shrewd Greek tactician who helps keep peace between Agamemnon and iconic, morale-maintainer Achilles.
For his part, Brad Pitt doesn't quite live down the fears that his sparkly Hollywood swagger isn't suited to this kind of film. Achilles is elemental, a force of nature, an instinctive soldier whose focused, feline agility has ensured a reputation as the greatest warrior who ever lived. He's supposed to stand out from the crowd.
In a way, it's a shame Petersen didn't let Pitt cut loose a little more and allow Achilles' arrogance to manifest itself through a bit of showmanship; he could have let him stop struggling with that accent, for a start. Instead, Pitt goes for furrowed, stormy brooding, leaving us with a performance that's more about containment than crowd-pleasing.
Still, the never-more-buffed Brad is perfect for the part, and it's when the action fixes on Achilles that Troy enthralls most. In fact, once Pitt and Bana face off, the movie finally reaches the Olympian altitude we'd all been hoping for. It's telling that their five-minute, mano-a-mano mêlée outdoes any of the bigger clashes for sheer, seat-perching excitement. A fierce, tightly choreographed whirl of sword, fist, spear and shield, Achilles' silent fury against Hector's roaring strength, it feels like the evolutionary pinnacle of big-screen battling, finally banishing the clunks and scrapes of the opening act.
Of course, neither is strictly the good guy and neither is strictly the bad guy, and the confusion over who to root for is rather novel. It's this that truly marks Troy out from Lord Of The Rings, or indeed most classical historical epics out there. This is no simplistic, black-and-white war of ideals. It's a brutal, bloody collision of nations played out in shades of grey. True, Agamemnon is clearly corrupt, but then Odysseus fights alongside him and he's easily as applaudable as Hector.
This isn't a tale of heroes and villains, it's a tale of heroes who've been placed on opposing battle lines by circumstance. Which may not prove dramatically satisfying come the fiery climax, but at least it leaves you with something to think about.
A creaky set-up denies Troy much emotional resonance, but jaws will sag once it hits its stride. You can't complain about those fight scenes...