As a young boy regaled with stories of myths and tales of his hero Achilles, Alexander (Colin Farrell, age 28) was raised with a thirst for power and glory. Under the control of his mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie, age 29), Alexander rose to power, eventually controlling the Macedonian army after his father, the abusive King Philip (Val Kilmer), died. Consumed with conquering the known world, Alexander led his army to the far reaches of Europe and Asia in a quest for knowledge and to control all, making him a global ruler by age 30. Drunk on his popularity, his sexual conquests, and his ability to seemingly move mountains at will, Alexander finds his greatest challenge when he leads his troops into the mysterious jungles of India, where he eventually dies at the startlingly young age of 33.
The comparisons to Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" are unfair, but inevitable. How often do we get two, three-hour Greek epics over the course of six months? "Troy" was strictly old Hollywood; a film that took its time addressing the multitude of characters and situations, and cast with an eye for the box office haul. It was direct, careful, and deliberate, which I feel shaped it as a classic piece of filmmaking, although burdened with weighty flaws. "Alexander" features similar material, including battles, political arguments, and seething supporting characters, but this time history is projected through the vision of Oliver Stone. It's been five years since Stone helmed a feature film. Has anybody missed him?
Ten years ago, Stone's blitzkrieg "Natural Born Killers" took the highly regarded filmmaker down a dark path of visual experimentation and diminishing box office returns. Astonishingly, "Alexander" (IMDb listing) hands Stone his biggest budget to date for this dramatization of the life and death of Alexander the Great. However, Stone isn't interested in pleasing the mass audience these pictures are typically made for.
Confusion sets in right away when it becomes evident that Stone and his co-writers are drafting a movie that adds their own personal research into the conqueror's life. Names and events start flying as soon as the picture opens, with little time afforded for audience acclimation. And it's not that Stone is going for complete historical accuracy either (Jolie's casting took care of that pipe dream), but more to drown the audience in the atmosphere and viewpoints of the age. The trick question is this: should Stone be punished for attempting a literate and heavily researched script? No, he shouldn't, but better writers would have gone out of their way to make sure the audience had a fighting chance to comprehend the intricate characters and situations, thus creating a more involving moviegoing experience. "Alexander" is completely content to keep the audience at arm's length.
Another interesting writing choice is one that eventually strikes a deathblow to the movie. In the first act, King Philip dies off screen, and is treated with an abrupt "and then he died" mention in the narration, striking a curious note that implies Stone didn't have time to properly cover this important moment in Alexander's life. At the two-hour mark, for whatever reason, Stone suddenly flashbacks to the incident and illustrates Philip's death in detail. The demise of this king is crucial to Alexander's evolution as a leader and conqueror, and without this moment in proper context, it's nearly impossible to fully grasp the young man's drive and passion. By bizarrely keeping this scene until the last moment, Stone robs Farrell's performance of depth and history, and he disrupts his own film's pace by stopping everything to wander back in time and cover all his bases.
"Alexander" has the structure of an epic, and the fresh influx of money indulges Stone in wild, if overtly familiar by now, visuals of armies stretching miles wide, opulent locations, and blood-soaked battles featuring rampaging elephants (which is neat only in concept). Stone has a gift for widescreen framing, but ever since "Killers," the filmmaker has been consumed by thrusting the audience into the heat of the moment. Through the use of heavy close-ups and deliberate camera shaking, the whirlwind energy of the cinematography is exhausting and frustrating, unable to depict exactly what's going on with clarity. Things get even more bizarre when Stone tints the screen pink to "symbolize" Alexander's wounded, disrupted POV for the last battle sequence, in a blatant Quentin Tarantino-style move that allows Stone to get away with more violence than the MPAA would normally allow. He isn't fooling anybody.
For such a large-scale action epic, "Alexander" is an incredibly talky picture blessed with a wide array of actors who give it their all to sell the mountain of words Stone has given them. They can't always keep up. When the true resonance of the complicated dialog fails them, the talents resort to screaming their spittle-drenched lines at each other. There are a high number of fervent performances in the film, what with Jolie fondling snakes and her womb, Kilmer raging with one eye scarred over, and Anthony Hopkins (cast as the narrator and surviving member of Alexander's army) quivering in his portrayal of old age recollection. But Colin Farrell is the star of the show, and if he's great at anything, it would be blind rage. In the battle sequences, Farrell brings Alexander to life with a frighteningly authentic performance of leadership and brutality that makes it clear he was a perfect choice for the role. That thinking is retracted in Stone's laborious domestic sequences for Farrell, who has a hard time making the words his own. Stone also shortchanges Alexander's bisexual leanings (with co-star Jared Leto and just about every man-servant onscreen), which are hinted at with all the subtlety of an ADD child wanting a toy for Christmas. Yet these urges are never indulged for fear of upsetting the hetero elite. This also undermines Farrell's game attempt at a rich portrayal of this conflicted leader.
"Alexander" also reintroduces Stone to the idea of a spiritual icon, acting as a touchstone for Alexander's actions. Here the icon is an eagle, which soars around the events of the film as a silent witness to Alexander's glory. Stone hasn't really investigated this narrative idea since the "weird, naked Indian guy" in "The Doors," and in the intervening years, he has done little to sharpen this vague notion of visual destiny.
A once deliberate, respectful, and nuanced filmmaker, Oliver Stone has fully abandoned his sense of magic and precision. "Alexander" is an ambitious stab at a traditional epic, but it cracks under the weight of Stone's limited imagination and aborted execution.
Filmfodder Grade: D+