It's anybody's guess what Oliver Stone was thinking by making a film about Alexander the Great that skips over nearly every historical event that earned him that moniker. Whatever his intent, in "Alexander" the director has concocted little more than a surface-skimming soap opera bloated with professorial exposition.
Star Colin Farrell, his hair dyed blonde and given a poufty 1970s "dry look," doesn't have much to work with in terms of character development because every event that shaped Alexander as a man, a leader and a warrior happens off-screen.
The film skips over his first battle commanding at his father's side, and skips over his pivotal creativity in that victory, which established his natural instincts on the battlefield. It skips over his father's murder (although two hours later Stone returns to it in a flashback), skips his ascent to the throne, pays only lip service to his mother's orders to execute his half-brother, and gets the facts wrong about the death of that boy's mother -- his father's more favored wife.
Legendary battles at Granicus, Issus and Tyre are absent from the movie, as are the Macedonian conqueror's conquests of the future Holy Lands, his founding of several cities in his name, and his being made Pharaoh and declared the son of a god by Egyptian priests.
In fact, after a first reel of heavily narrated establishing episodes of Alexander's teens, Stone leaps forward several years, to a time after his hero has annexed half the known world and is pushing deep into Asia, facing King Darius III of Persia (for the second time) in a 331 B.C. battle Alexander won despite his army being out numbered 47,000 to 250,000.
This is one of just two battle scenes (both effectively gripping but not excessively graphic), and for a moment it seems Stone might unbridle the movie's restless spirit, showing a little innovation by following an eagle into the sky for a legitimate bird's-eye view that could make clear the swift, large-scale military maneuvering that made Alexander such a formidable foe. But the director completely fails to take advantage of the technique, even in a battle in which a flanking maneuver was the decisive blow.
The other battle scene -- late in the picture, when Alexander is nearly killed during his conquest of India -- takes place in thick jungle terrain with poor visibility where no general would ever lead his troops. This battle actually took place at a city wall, but Stone clearly wanted a scene in which the enemy's sometimes-CGI-rendered elephants could seem to come thundering out of nowhere.
The rest of "Alexander" is almost nothing but exposition. Anthony Hopkins, as Greek historian Ptolemy, narrates laboriously to his scribes on an obvious soundstage full of fake gold statues, meant to be the Great Library at Alexandria. Characters drone on about the victories Stone doesn't bother to show. Conversations between Alexander and Hephaistion (Jared Leto), a childhood friend and military compatriot, skirt vaguely around their life-long homosexual relationship, as they declare their undying devotion to each other (with their eyes full of emotional implication), but then embrace only in solid-pat-on-the-back man hugs.
Meanwhile, Stone gets ridiculous in an animalistic sex scene (complete with growls) between Alexander and his first wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson), a Bactrian princess whose hand in marriage had little strategic value and thus helped stir dissent among Alexander's generals. Neither of his other two wives, or the mistress who bore him a son, are even mentioned, and Stone barely touches on Alexander's decent into debauchery once he returned to his primary home in Babylon -- although being a filmmaker forever obsessed with intrigue and subterfuge (a la "JFK") Stone does use it as a springboard to a conspiracy theory about Alexander's death.
"Alexander" does have two saving graces. One is Val Kilmer, who embodies bitter gruffness but devotion and world-weary strength as King Phillip, Alexander's father. The other is Angelina Jolie, who is perfectly cast as Olympias, his indomitable, deliciously dangerous mother who never seems to age (due to some immortal blood perhaps?). Jolie appears to be the only actor on screen willing to embrace the film's unintended camp value.
But the true story of Alexander the Great is so much deeper and more interesting than this underwhelming two-and-a-half-hour catalog of second-rate highlights, and these secondary performances can't begin to make up the difference. Anyone even vaguely interested in the life, loves, and astounding conquests of this important figure in world history would do well to skip this flick and just hunker down with the History Channel.
Run time: 175 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 24th November 2004
Box Office USA: $34.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $167.3M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros., Intermedia Films, Pacifica Film, Egmond Film & Television, IMF Internationale Medien und Film GmbH & Co. 3. Produktions KG, Pathé Renn Productions
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 16%
Fresh: 32 Rotten: 163
IMDB: 5.5 / 10
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Colin Farrell as Alexander, Angelina Jolie as Olympias, Val Kilmer as Philip, Jared Leto as Hephaistion, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Cassander, Anthony Hopkins as Old Ptolemy, Jessie Kamm as Child Alexander, Fiona O'Shaughnessy as Nurse, Connor Paolo as Young Alexander, Patrick Carroll as Young Hephaistion, Peter Williamson as Young Nearchus, Christopher Plummer as Aristotle, John Kavanagh as Parmenion, Gary Stretch as Cleitus, Rosario Dawson as Roxane, Féodor Atkine as Roxane's Father, Toby Kebbell as Pausanius, Laird Macintosh as Greek Officer, Francisco Bosch as Bagoas, Neil Jackson as Perdiccas, Garrett Lombard as Leonnatus, Chris Aberdein as Polyperchon, Rory McCann as Crateros, Raz Degan as Darius III, Joseph Morgan as Philotas
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