Time was when British character actors were handed out the minor parts in Hollywood blockbusters, but now in Wolfgang Petersen's martial epic Troy they're positively running the show, a new one seeming to pop up in every scene. Here's old favourite Brian Cox as Agamemnon, Brendan Gleeson as Menelaus and Sean Bean as Odysseus; there's Peter O' Toole as the venerable King Priam, and Julie Christie as Thetis, the mother of Achilles. The names become less familiar as the cast list scrolls down, but you'll still probably recognise James Cosmo, and Vincent Regan, and, isn't that Eddie Shoestring behind the beard? Yes, it really is Trevor Eve, playing third warlord from the left. Trust the Brits to be shoulder to shoulder with the Americans when there's a war on.
And we haven't even mentioned Orlando Bloom, hot enough to have his name above the title - no skulking in the ranks for him. Bloom plays Paris, a prince of Troy who makes off with the tiger-eyed beauty queen Helen (Diane Kruger), to the chagrin of her husband Menelaus and to the regret of Paris's brother, Hector (Eric Bana), who knows that her defection will drag them all into war. Sure enough, the thousand ships are launched by command of King Agamemnon, to avenge the honour of his cuckolded brother but in reality to seize Troy and expand his empire across the Aegean sea.
The spearhead of his battle-plan is Achilles, an über-warrior already nursing his own legend as the fiercest thing on two legs. That he is played by Brad Pitt is both good news and bad. Bulked out like a boxer, he has a splendidly athletic fighting style that involves a sprint and a balletic kind of sideways leap, enabling him to plunge his sword into his opponent's undefended flank.
Psychologically, however, he's flat. Achilles requires the brooding volatile menace of a Russell Crowe; sulking in his tent, Pitt blondly pouts and preens, but there's not a lot going on behind those surf-blue eyes, and the voice has the same stilted plumminess he affected in Meet Joe Black. It's also significant that Patroclus, whose death provokes Achilles to murderous revenge, is here styled as his "cousin" instead of friend; heaven forbid we should suspect any gay attachment between these strapping dudes.
The script, by David Benioff, is "inspired" by The Iliad, though it takes a wider historical view of the Trojan War than Homer did. Perhaps wisely, Benioff hasn't tried to emulate the high-flown language of the poem, preferring the gnomic esperanto of Hollywood epic: "That man was born to end lives", and "War is young men dying, and old men talking".
It's unfortunate that none of the leads has quite the tone of voice to speak the lines with any authority, but then we're not watching a Wolfgang Petersen movie for the talk - his forte is spectacle, mounted here on a panoramic scale; the Greek fleet in full sail, the distant advance of serried ranks of soldiers, the funeral pyres burning along a beach at night.
Petersen's best film hitherto was Das Boot, which spent most of its three hours-plus entombed within the clammy confines of a German U-boat. Here he shows a contrasting facility for the majestic sprawl of sea and plain. In recent times only Peter Jackson with his Lord of The Rings trilogy has handled the drama of men against landscape so confidently.
And, also in common with LOTR, the battle sequences are breathtaking, a clangorous mêlée of steel and blood and fire. When Achilles leads his agile Myrmidon soldiers off the ship and on to the beach in front of Troy, one can't help being reminded of the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan as flaming arrows pour down on the invaders. Later, when the Greeks launch an assault on Troy, the camera makes an aerial sweep along the clashing battle-lines, from which vantage it looks like one termitary of ants swarming over another: the effect is suddenly disturbing. Up close, the hand-to-hand combat is intensely savage.
The wonderfully choreographed duel between Hector and Achilles has the accelerating tension of a championship bout as both fighters thrust and feint, spears and then blades ringing against shields like a clapper inside a church bell; one senses the sheer exhaustion of fighting under armour, and the palpable fear that a single false move could be your last. Eric Bana hasn't yet translated the danger and brutality of his psychotic jailbird "Chopper" Read to an American movie, but he has a grave virility as Hector and carries the foreknowledge of his doom movingly in his sorrowful gaze.
Petersen generally plays to his strengths, and as long as he concentrates on action, Troy is a hugely absorbing entertainment. It's in the quieter scenes that one feels the movie begin to stumble, mainly because there isn't (aside from Bana) a presence strong enough to carry it.
Pitt hasn't the emotional depth or urgency to convince as Achilles, and his love scenes with the captive maiden Briseis (Rose Byrne) feel underpowered. Just as puny is the supposed ardour that brings Paris and Helen together; Bloom and Kruger look as pretty as perfume models - you can picture the billboard, "Troy" by Calvin Klein - but there isn't enough spark between them to kindle a camp fire, let alone a kingdom-ending conflagration. It says something when one of the stoutest performances comes from the Trojan Horse. I assume that, like the majority of the cast, it originally hails from this country.