Dude! Where's My Chariot?

Don't send a boy toy to Troy. And other musings about today's zero heroes.

By Steve Burgess 17 May 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Some epic poets have all the luck. Not only did the Greek bard Homer get a major screen credit in the new Wolfgang Petersen movie Troy, he also gets to be dead centuries before last weekend and thus spared the ignominy of seeing the film translation of his Iliad. Had he lived, he surely wouldn't have been writing scripts like this one. He'd be directing at least.

Or better yet, he'd be a casting director. It's tough to find real Achaean warriors in California, as Brad Pitt proves. Playing the legendary Achilles, Pitt has plenty of visual presence and, even I can see, looks appropriately demi-god-like with his armour off. You can sort of buy his act as he strides around like an ancient David Lee Roth. But when he opens his mouth, or even keeps it closed in that cute little warrior's pout, it just doesn't say tragic Homerian hero. It says, "Dude! Where's my chariot?"

And so the real star of Troy is--Russell Crowe. Who was also the star of last year's The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise. By not appearing in either of those movies Crowe cemented his importance as today's preeminent leading man when it comes to playing the past.

Bring me the head of Russell Crowe

Many comparisons are being made between Troy and the 2000 film Gladiator, which provided Crowe's breakthrough to the top of the Hollywood A-list. As Maximus, Crowe anchored the rousing Ridley Scott epic that can still serve as a master class for the superior popcorn movie. Cutting a swathe through the arena as he moves inexorably toward his destiny, Crowe radiates both authority and coiled menace.

He's also a fine actor, which seems almost unfair. Someone like Clint Eastwood is a pleasure to watch in the proper vehicle, but we don't expect transformation from Clint. Crowe on the other hand can deliver performances like his tortured, turncoat cigarette executive in The Insider. It's almost a shame, since it means we'll get fewer of his signature roles in films like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here's a guy who was born to captain a cinematic ship.

Crowe's acting skills are not at the heart of what separates him from Cruise and Pitt, though. Fate is a rigged game--it made Pitt and Cruise insufferably pretty and left the rest of us to look on in sullen envy. But it also made them preternaturally boyish, and that is where Russell Crowe gains his upper hand. He will never be mistaken for a pretty boy, but Crowe's natural air of authority cannot be taught. He exudes a gravitas that Pitt and Cruise can never match.

Cruise another hero zero

In The Last Samurai, Cruise's attempt to portray a degenerate Civil War hero was polluted by an inescapable whiff of California breeze. Cruise will always carry in his features that Risky Business/Top Gun smirk. His attempts to look serious or grim merely make him look like he has lost an important point in a beach volleyball game.

As for Pitt, he's been good at transforming himself from time to time, but within limits. He has taken on unusual projects like Snatch and Fight Club and certainly appears determined to escape the straitjacket of People Magazine stardom. But when he dons the armour of Achilles he unwittingly steps into the ring with Crowe's Maximus. It's no contest.

Pitt is far from the worst thing about Troy. He's not even close to the worst casting decision in the film. That would probably be Diane Kruger as Helen. Legend dictates that Helen is the most beautiful woman of her age and perhaps of all time, yet Kruger is not even the most striking woman in this movie. Kruger has a sort of vacant, beer-commercial beauty but is no match for the soulful Saffron Burrows as Hector's wife, Andromache.

Troy is at its best in the climactic fight scene between Hector and Achilles, and its aftermath. Not coincidentally, that is a part of the movie that contains almost no dialogue and most clearly echoes Homer. While the film roughly follows the plot of Homer's Iliad, it side-steps the direct intervention of the gods and predictably layers on the trappings of the modern romantic blockbuster. Bad move, and worse still when the climax descends into clichéd farce--King Agamemnon as Snidely McWhiplash, menacing the young maiden.

Look who's playing Alexander

I don't know if it would be possible to render Homer in a visual style that somehow captured the tragic spirit of the original, gods and all. But almost anything would be better than this generic approach (typified by the arrow that pierces the heel of Achilles--the movie preserves this part of the legend without offering any explanation of why it matters).

Meanwhile, one man benefits most from all of this epic filmmaking--the erstwhile Maximus, relaxing on the sidelines while the pretenders battle it out. Next up is Colin Farrell playing Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone's Alexander, due in November. If the past year is any indication, Russell Crowe should prepare to double his fees.

Steve Burgess reviews the screen, small and occasionally large, for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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