Epic Pecs, Great Effects

Turning Homer’s Iliad into an action-epic summer-movie blockbuster that is literate and commercial has got to be a job for either a genius or a fool, but Wolfgang Petersen-the director who has guided everything from Clint Eastwood to a German submarine to box-office glory-answers to both labels. Despite the fact that the self-anointed Greek gods in Troy resort to too many annoying speeches about the honor of war and the dignity of brutality in battle, despite the fact that the movie is two hours and 40 minutes long, and despite the fact that in a chain-metal breastplate and a leather miniskirt, Brad Pitt’s throbbing new Schwarzenegger pecs and thighs look ridiculous, Mr. Petersen has collated what appears to be all of the Greek archives on the Trojan War in the Athens museum into one coherent war epic that is also an action spectacle of weight, splendor and vast entertainment value. Astoundingly, my tailbone’s resistance to anything over two hours in length passed all sorts of daunting tests. In two hours and 40 minutes, I felt the sacroiliac’s sigh and heard the bathroom’s clarion call, but I wasn’t bored by Troy . The risks are enormous and, for the most part, they pay off.

At a time when most movies eschew plot and cohesive narrative detail for noise and special effects, Troy has enough entangled story lines for 10 movies. Three millennia ago, the eternally warring Greek nations of Troy and Sparta momentarily reached a peace agreement when the two royal Trojan princes, youthful and impulsive Paris (Orlando Bloom, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and his warrior brother Hector (Australia’s Eric Bana), paid a friendly visit to Sparta’s King Menelaus (Ireland’s Brendan Gleeson) and his luscious child-bride, Queen Helen (France’s Diane Kruger), and they all shook hands. Unfortunately for world history, Paris also shook something else. Helen became his secret lover and ran away with him to Troy, taking up residence in the walled palace of King Priam (Peter O’Toole). Back in Sparta, the insulted and outraged Menelaus joins forces with his brother Agamemnon, the ambitious king of the Mycenaeans, who pretends to be hopping mad but actually seizes war as an opportunity to gain more personal power and control the Aegean. Together, they lead 50,000 soldiers to Troy. It’s up to only one man, the terrifying and indestructible warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt), to lead the armies, burn Troy, drag the wayward Helen back home and secure the future of the Greek empire. But when he’s called to the battlefield, he’s still in bed-butt-naked and artfully posed for a Cosmo centerfold. Obviously holed up in a Hollywood gym for the past two years, the buff but too pretty Mr. Pitt turns Achilles, the greatest warrior in the world, into a cross between Gorgeous George and a coiffed Ken doll on steroids. Every time the movie switches from the more compelling stories of the doomed Helen and Paris, the heartbroken but wise King Priam, the insane greed of the evil Agamemnon (Brian Cox in the film’s best and funniest performance), and the fairness and integrity of the heroic Hector, torn between love of family and the future of Troy, Mr. Pitt leaps into camera focus, slashing swords and stripping off his armor again to show off those undulating thighs. (His personal trainer gets his own screen credit, along with his hairdresser and the minions responsible for his bronze body makeup and designer sandals.) Achilles loses interest in the war when he falls for a Trojan princess himself, but there is still a lot of bloodshed and violence on the way. Great effects: the destruction of the Temple of Apollo, the arrival of 1,000 warships that look like an armada of Cleopatra’s gold centipedes, flaming balls of fire hurling down on enemy armies, bodies burning on the funeral pyres, archers firing hundreds of arrows with precision bows aimed at hundreds of extras.

Finally, Achilles avenges the death of his young cousin and pupil, who was accidentally slain by Hector when he mistook him for Achilles, by challenging Hector in hand-to-hand combat, even though Hector is the beloved cousin of the Trojan girl Briseis (the dreadfully miscast Rose Byrne), whom Achilles has been nailing nightly in his tent on the beach. (Stay with me on this; the plot keeps thickening and who can pronounce, spell or remember these names?) Hector’s motto is “Honor the gods, love your woman and defend your country!”, and when he tells it to the camera, there is no suspense about his fate on the field of honor. This comes two hours into the movie, and there’s still 40 minutes to go. Don’t doze, and don’t even think of leaving, or you’ll miss Agamemnon’s kidnapping of Briseis, which drives Achilles to madness, the entrance of the Trojan Horse, the burning of Troy and the meaning of what podiatrists for centuries have labeled the “Achilles heel.”

In a movie this long and arduous, you can expect dialogue that makes you wince. Achilles: “It’s too early in the morning to kill princes.” Helen: “I don’t want a hero-I want a man I can grow old with!” Agamemnon: “Peace is for the women and the weak-empires are built by war!” The urge to suppress a giggle overwhelms. But sometimes scriptwriter David Benioff lands a line that transcends 1200 B.C. and lands smack in the middle of a contemporary heart. “War is young men dying and old men talking” conjures gruesome visuals of Westmoreland and Rumsfeld I cannot erase. As for the acting, the honors go to Mr. Cox’s creative and forceful line readings of the corrupt Agamemnon’s every sulfurous sarcasm, Mr. Bana’s strength and integrity as the courageous Hector, and supporting bits by Julie Christie as Achilles’ mother and Sean Bean as Odysseus, the balanced and brainy king of Ithaca and the only leader Achilles can call a friend. Young Orlando Bloom is too much of a callow boy-child to work up much audience sympathy, and Ms. Kruger makes a cardboard Helen so bland she hardly seems worth all the brutality. You could understand why they might name a condom a Trojan after her, but not a battle that shook civilization.

Filmed in Mexico, Malta, Morocco and the U.K., the film has awesome cinematography that actually makes the geographical locations look real. (Filming in modern Greece, you’d get too many McDonald’s in every background shot.) Homer supposedly wrote the epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey nearly 400 years after the fall of Troy, so who knows whether any of this film is truth or fiction-and either way, the story has been filmed before. All I can tell you is that Troy is the first movie about the legend that is worth the money and the celluloid it was printed on. I have no idea if Brad Pitt’s name is enough of a draw to lure kids to a movie this long and literary, but it’s massive, opulent, passionate and-unlike most summer time-wasters-surprisingly intelligent.

Bloodsucking Mess

I don’t know what I expected from Van Helsing , but at the least I was hoping for something resembling a motion picture. But this moronic abomination is not a movie. It’s just a noisy, nasty and repulsive video game-slash-theme-park haunted-house ride designed to appeal to the offspring of warlocks and trolls. Professor Van Helsing was the elderly vampire-hunter played by Edward Van Sloan in the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic Dracula . He was a legitimate Bram Stoker character sufficiently important enough to be played, in subsequent Dracula movies, by Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins.

In this idiotic farce, filmed on ugly sets in Prague, Paris and Rome by the no-talent writer-director Stephen Sommers, the mysterious vampire-hunter is played by the always fascinating but criminally misused Hugh Jackman with the hair of Tiny Tim, the hat of Indiana Jones and the facial scowl of a reality-show contestant who has just been forced to eat a plateful of live caterpillars. The humiliation is understandable. This trash probably made it financially possible for Mr. Jackman to take a year off and become the toast of the theater world in the Broadway musical The Boy From Oz , but still. After suffering through this rubbish, I wonder if an estimated $150 million waste of money and talent like the torturous Van Helsing will be something on Mr. Jackman’s résumé that he hopes his fans and admirers forget in a New York minute.

In what appears to be a spoof of not only vampire movies but every other kind of horror epic, Mr. Jackman’s Van Helsing is a hunter of a whole army of monsters with terrible accents. He works for a secret organization in the Vatican. He may be 400 years old. Dracula knew him when they were both children. In a black-and-white opening, the torch-bearing peasants in 1887 Transylvania burn down the castle of Frankenstein. The monster climbs to the top of the tower to the windmill, knocking over bottles of absinthe, and falls to the river below. One year later, in Paris, Van Helsing hurls Dr. Jekyll, who has turned the infamous Mr. Hyde into the Incredible Hulk, from the top of the Notre Dame cathedral. Next it’s off to Rome, where the Pope assigns him to Transylvania with a friar tagging along for comic relief. Count Dracula is celebrating his 450th birthday and trying to wipe out Anna and Velkan Valerious, a brother-sister act descended from gypsies. They’ve got the key to unlock the secret of how Dracula can live forever. Meanwhile, the brother is turned into a werewolf and Count Dracula and his bloodsucking brides are using the poor old growling but misunderstood Frankenstein monster to unleash enough electricity to bring thousands of slimy, hanging fetuses to life dripping ooze in the castle cellar. Clubs, stakes, holy water, crucifixes-all are powerless against Dracula, who unleashes his progeny into the skies to chomp and chew half of Transylvania to death. Meanwhile, Van Helsing has been bitten by the Wolf Man, and he’s only got 48 hours before his first full moon. Hope is running out, but there’s still plenty of time for Mr. Jackman to fall for the ill-fated Valerious chick (played by the ill-fated Kate Beckinsale, desperately in need of a new agent), who hisses like a radiator, flies like the Wicked Witch of Oz and is about as romantic as a goth cannibal princess, and attend the masked Halloween Ball in Budapest. But enough already. What passed for narrative, plot development and character logic in the old Universal horror flicks is sacrificed for a gore-fest of fangs, blood, dismemberment and nauseating cruelty that is not funny, scary or remotely interesting.

Nothing in Van Helsing makes one word of sense, and they seem to be making it up as they go along. Every cast member is smashed, bashed and mangled beyond human endurance, yet survives without so much as a scratch, bruise or even a broken hangnail. The sets are cheesy, the digital effects are brainless and boring, the acting is collectively amateurish and embarrassing. After at least a dozen endings, the movie just collapses in a thunderous attack of screeching Gregorian chants composed by Alan Silvestri that should have been sealed and burned on arrival. None of this matters, except for the way Van Helsing squanders the colossal talents of Hugh Jackman. The movie will be forgotten before the arrival of the first ripe summer garden tomato, but it’s the perfect example of the nightmarish depths to which exceptionally gifted artists must sink to make a living in the dumbed-down world of American movies today.