The only thing Hollywood loves more than a blockbuster is copying a blockbuster, so the spate of sword 'n' sandals that followed in the wake of the Oscar-winning success of 'Gladiator' in 2000 was no surprise. Big-budget, A-list flicks like the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, 'Alexander' and 'King Arthur' soon filled theaters once again bulging biceps, chainmail and clanking swords, and if 'Troy' was not the worst of the bunch (that honor goes to Oliver Stone's hilarious 'Alexander'), it wasn't for a lack of trying.
In this loose retelling of Homer's "The Iliad," it is the year 1250 B.C. During the late Bronze age, two emerging nations begin to clash after Paris (Orlando Bloom), the Trojan prince, convinces Helen, Queen of Sparta (Diane Kruger), to leave her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), and sail with him back to Troy. After Menelaus finds out that Helen was taken by the Trojans, he asks his brother Agamemnom (Brian Cox) to help him get her back, but Agamemnon sees it only as an opportunity for power. So they set off with 1,000 ships holding 50,000 Greeks to Troy. With the help of the great warrior Achilles (Brad Troy), the Greeks are able to fight the never-defeated Trojans. But their short-lived victory may come to an end when they confront Hector, Prince of Troy (Eric Bana), who is determined to win the greatest war history has ever known to man, whatever the cost.
First, if you are a history buff or a fan of "The Illiad," throw all your knowledge right out of the window. Action-meister extraordinaire Wolfgang Petersen apparently labeled "accuracy" the enemy when he read the script, and instead turns 'Troy' into a mega-budgeted soap opera on the grand order of such notorious boondoggles as Elizabeth Taylor's 'Cleopatra.' With so much sturm and drang on display, Homer's complex, interwoven narrative and multifaceted characters have been minced into a clunky patchwork of three or four mini-stories, with stop-start pacing deflating any momentum or tension between the disparate plots. Oddly, this minimize the intended epic feel of the film -- 'Troy' ultimately feels small and narratively insignificant, not grand and weighty. Erase away all the CGI armies, clashing swords and flexing biceps (really, Brad Pitt should have won an Oscar here for best pectoral muscles), and Petersen and company have managed to turn an epic myth of war, honor, betrayal and power into something as petty as the average WB teen drama.
Really, it is hard to care much when you realize that by casting such easy-on-the-eyes if emotionally vacuous stars as Orlando Bloom and Brad Pitt (sorry, Brangelina fans, I just don't get this guy as an actor), we're basically watching a bunch of bratty, spoiled kids destroy their families and decimate whole nations. It's like a game of Risk, only with bad dialogue. And typical of these sort of modern, male-dominated swordplay fantasies, there is not a single memorable female character in the bunch, though to be fair, that is typical of the genre, and was also a problem that hampered 'Gladiator.' Where's Mirando Otto when you need her?
'Troy' does have some highlights. The second act battle, where the Greeks get clobbered until Achilles and his soldiers storm the beach, is as visually spectacular as anything Petersen has put on screen (even if it is just the Bronze Age version of 'Saving Private Ryan'). There are also a few welcome casting choices that don't kowtow to teen sensibilities. Petersen wisely nabbed Cox, Gleeson and especially Peter O'Toole for key roles, and all imbue their character with a wisdom and depth sorely lack elsewhere. Also standing tall is Eric Bana as Hector, whose fiery intensity elevates the drama to the mythic level it desperately needs, and his performance is a noteworthy precursor to his even better work in last year's 'Munich.'
But a few cool battle scenes and some strong performances aside, 'Troy' feels like pretty cut-rate. Unless you are a real glutton for bad-movie punishment and want to hold a 'Troy' and 'Alexander' double feature (both of which tied for Roger Ebert's 2004 "Worst Film" honor), I say skip this one and just go rent 'Gladiator' again instead.
'Troy' is perhaps the most highly-anticipated title in Warner's latest batch of HD DVD releases (which includes 'House of Wax' and 'Space Cowboys,' amongst others). Unfortunately, given such high expectations, I suspect some may be disappointed with the image quality here. Not that it is terrible -- far from it -- but this is still not the kind of reference-quality disc most are going to whip out when they want to impress their friends with great HD DVD demo material.
Warner presents 'Troy' in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video. The problems with the image are the same as those that plagued the previous standard-def DVD release. The source material is certainly pristine, with no visible artifacts such as dirt or speckles, and unintended film grain is not a problem. However, I was surprised that the film's many vast, outdoor panoramas look worse than darker, interior scenes. Just about any sequence shot in bright daylight suffers from blown-out contrast, almost as if the film is slightly overexposed. Perhaps this is intentional, but the blooming whites still irritate, and detail is just not as good as it could have been. Sure, the transfer still has a nice sense of depth to t and a few moments really impress with an excellent three-dimensionality, but overall it is still tweaky and artificial. There is also a very slight bit of harshness to the exterior scenes, with some ringing around sharply contrasted objects visible. However, I would hesitate to outright call this edge enhancement because the image has been so intentionally processed, but it definitely doesn't look film-like.
Comparably, interior scenes are more natural and pleasing. Blacks are excellent and shadow delineation above average. Fine details are also evident even in the dimmest interiors, and the sense of depth often exceeds that of the brighter daylight exteriors. Color reproduction also excels, with rich and stable hues, especially the fine fleshtones which are a lovely shade of orange throughout.
Finally, one more complaint. Is it just me, or is anyone else sick of all this CGI motion blur? Aside from the fact that I didn't find all those computer-animated warriors particularly photo-realistic, many of 'Troy's biggest action scenes are the softest parts of the transfer. Where real actors photographed against real backgrounds look nice and sharp, any long shot with lots of CGI tends to be more mushy, and I could rarely make out any fine detail amid all the pixel mess. Oh, well, I guess I'm just an old-school kinda guy?
If 'Troy's video transfer disappoints somewhat, its soundtrack delivers in spades. The latest Warner HD DVD title to include a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track (whoopee!), this one kicks some serious ass. A clear improvement over the already-fine Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the DVD, 'Troy' makes a sterling advertisement for the inclusion of lossless audio formats on next-gen discs.
'Troy's sound design is, of course, maximized to clobber you over the head. If any scene features a clanking sword or Eric Bana screaming, "For Troy!", you're going to hear it in your surrounds. Even more than previous TrueHD releases like 'Training Day' and 'The Perfect Storm,' 'Troy' delivers an intense "wall of sound" behind the listener that fully engages the soundfield to a degree previously unheard in a home theater environment. Fine sonic shadings are now discernible that you just don't hear on Dolby Digital. The second act battle for example -- on the Dolby Digital, background battle noises, such as body hits and cheering masses, comes across like a flat, continuous single point source of sound. But on the TrueHD, the effects feel far more localized to specific speakers. Dynamic range, too, is considerably expanded. Mid- and high-range is excellent, and .1 LFE incredibly forceful. The film's score by James Horner is quite percussive, and in TrueHD the drums packed a huge wallop, deliver the kind of floor-shaking low bass (at high volume) I'm just not used to hearing outside of the theater.
My only complaint with the film's design is that it is typically front-loaded during non-battle scenes. I hoped for more consistent atmosphere, especially with the score. Alas, we get a bit of bleed to the rears for ambient noises, but even the TrueHD is of little added help in boosting envelopment. But let's face it, 'Troy' is all about Brad Pitt kicking people's asses, so on that level, it succeeds like gangbusters.
Surprisingly, the previous standard-def DVD of 'Troy' was pretty malnourished in the supplement department. There was no audio commentary include on that release -- especially odd given that director Wolfgang Petersen is fond of recording them -- and even the video-based features kinda sucked, with only trio of fairly fluffy featurettes. Alas, that is all we get the second time, as Warner has again ported over all of the old extras for this HD DVD. (However, we do get one great supplement exclusive to this next-gen release, but see the next section for more on that.)
The heart of 'Troy's extras are three featurettes, totaling 42 minutes. "In the Thick of Battle" offers an analysis of the film's "thrilling" battle scenes; "From Ruins to Reality" cover the film's production design and the filmmakers' slavish devotion to historical accuracy; and "Troy: An Effects Odyssey" gives a rudimentary look at the basics of CGI filmmaking. Unfortunately, most of this stuff is pretty passe now -- we've seen it all before, and documented better, in such epic DVD sets as 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy. There is also little information on the film's story, themes, characters or source material. By focusing solely on the technical, these extras miss what is most interesting about 'Troy,' and oddly reinforce the notion that the film is all bombast over substance.
"Gallery of the Gods" is also a disappointment. This "3-D Animated Guide to Greek Mythos" is really just a dozen brief bios of famous figures in mythology, but it is nothing you can't find online at Wikipedia. The 3-D interface is also clumsy, and rather than adding anything to the experience it just made me appreciate even more the ease of the Internet.
The only other extra is the film's theatrical trailer presented in widescreen and 480p video.
'Troy' is not my favorite epic period piece in recent years, and falls well short of superior entertainments like 'Gladiator.' However, it is pretty to look at, and the battle scenes are impressively over-the-top. This HD DVD edition comes highly anticipated, with a new Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and the exclusive In-Movie Experience supplement. Unfortunately, the transfer has some problems with overly-contrasted exteriors and inconsistent sharpness, but the TrueHD track rocks and I'm a big fan of IME bonus content. So this one is definitely worth a rent, if only to see what cool new features the HD DVD format is capable of delivering these days.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.