So, here's something I never expected to say about a big-budget Oliver Stone film starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer: It's dull.
Despite Stone's flirtations with Alexander's supposed bisexuality, and Alexander's mother's weird snake obsession, and some enormous (though CGI-enhanced) battle scenes featuring armies advancing with massive spears, as if they're about to do a group pole vault, "Alexander" is dull. Despite a cast full of actors capable of delivering the kind of energy jolt that could bring a corpse back to life — it's dull. Despite Rodrigo Prieto's dramatic cinematography, Jenny Beavan's sleek costumes and Jan Roelfs' elegant production design — it's dull. And did I mention it's three hours long?
"Alexander," admittedly, is a tough story to bring to the screen. The legendary warrior fought battle after battle, winning every time, before his death at age 32, by which time he had conquered the vast majority of the known world. But who can afford, these days, to stage a movie full of massive battle sequences? Not Stone, so he gives us only a few, filling the rest of the movie with exposition, delivered in a strange polyglot of accents, and framing it in an elaborate flashback structure as old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) lectures scholars — and us — on why Alexander was great. (If the movie had worked as it should, Ptolemy wouldn't have had to tell us.)
Farrell, in blond hair and oddly speckled eyebrows (those ancient Macedonian hair salons clearly had a lot to learn about dyeing techniques), continues his unfortunate pattern of giving hints of the great actor he could be, if only he had the right material. There's an early moment in "Alexander," during a riotous party, when he flashes with sudden anger, and it's electric — you get a sense of this young man as a short fuse awaiting a spark.
But Stone doesn't seem interested in exploring the character; rather, he gives us constant images of the kohl-eyed young men of Alexander's retinue (the warrior king's bisexuality is far more than hinted at) and of poor Jolie as his mysterious, beautiful mother Olympias, busily flaring her nostrils and feeding Alexander's Oedipal complex. She's depicted as a Medusa-like snake charmer, complete with serpent-like tendrils of hair, who some called a sorceress. Stone makes sure that we're clear on what we should think of her by interspersing one of her speeches with footage of Alexander's wedding night to Roxane (Rosario Dawson, sneering all her lines). (That wedding night, by the way, is one of cinema's odder sex scenes, with the two of them hissing at each other like cats.)
On goes the story, as Alexander racks up more conquests on the battlefield and in the bedroom, and the filmmaking starts to become increasingly more desperate, with an odd flashback-within-a-flashback, and a sudden battlefield scene in which everything is red, as if the movie started bleeding. And his dramatic deathbed scene comes far too late — "Alexander" the movie dies long before Alexander the man, and we've already ceased to care about his impact.
Comparisons with Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy," this year's other ancient-Greek-warrior epic, are inevitable, and frankly neither movie seems likely to be cherished by future generations. But the main difference is that "Troy," though flawed, gave some actors room to craft characters and show off their chops: Peter O'Toole, in particular, nimbly stole the movie. "Alexander," by contrast, begs to be stolen, but nobody steps up. There's a recurring theme in Stone's film of an eagle, soaring into the sun over the battlefields, suddenly appearing and then flying away. Would that he had the movie with him.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org