Grecian Formula

Brad Pitt's quest for credibility has been only a qualified success, so his first scene in Wolfgang Petersen's epic "Troy" is not just the movie's most titillating--he is revealed butt-naked, sleeping off a threesome in a tent--but its most nervous-making as well: he opens his mouth and starts acting. Given Pitt's fascination with subverting expectations, it's easy to imagine why he was drawn to Achilles. Here's a warrior, taken from Homer's Iliad, of course, who's supremely arrogant yet roiling in self-loathing. Still, it took guts for Pitt to sign on for the role. With his flowing locks, helmet and breastplate, Achilles could look to audiences every inch the tragic hero--or like a guy about to deliver a kinky strip-o-gram.

Either way, no one's going to complain. "Troy" is a fun, energizing piece of summer entertainment, even if it doesn't have the depth or the sustained intensity of "Gladiator." The story, as Homer proved, does not lend itself to paraphrase, but here goes. The movie opens with the Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) making off with Helen, the queen of Sparta (Diane Kruger). Enraged, Sparta's King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) urges his brother, King Agamemnon of the Mycenaens (Brian Cox in a robustly evil turn), to help him unite all the tribes of Greece, lay siege to Troy and recover his queen so he can kill her with his own hands. The war ultimately boils down to a showdown between two men. In one corner, there's Achilles, who reviles Agamemnon but fights for him out of an insatiable thirst for glory. In the other, there's Paris's brave big brother, Hector (Eric Bana). Enough about the plot already. But, yes, there's a sequence with the Trojan horse, which is gripping, though for some it will inevitably call to mind Monty Python's Trojan rabbit.

"Troy" never decides if Paris and Helen's love is callow or eternal, and Bloom and Kruger are pallid presences. (At one point, because the director is trying to juggle so many subplots, Bloom disappears from the film for so long that you literally forget he's in it.) In any case, Pitt and Bana are the real story here. Pitt's work is hardly revelatory, but it's dark, nuanced and mostly convincing. Bana's Hector is terrific--a bold, humane warrior and the movie's moral center. The mammoth digitized ships and armies of "Troy" are slightly underwhelming after "Lord of the Rings." The movie's one-on-one battles, however, are emotionally charged and ferocious. When Achilles and Hector go at it, we are witness to a clash of love and hate, faith and nihilism and, of course, beefcake and beefcake. Against all odds, the audience wins.