Take thy sword to thine own scenes

A bleached Colin Farrell outshines cast and crew in Oliver Stone's Alexander.

'Alexander' is a convoluted slog through pop history that would make 'National Geographic' proud

Though not the Thanksgiving turkey forecast by some critics, Oliver Stone's Alexander is nevertheless far, far from great. Like this summer's classically themed stinker, Troy, Stone's film never manages to manhandle a sprawling, epic story into proper cinematic form. The resulting biography of Alexander the Great is an unsatisfactory mix of History Lecture and Grand Tragedy, never gelling as either a rollicking historical narrative or character study. Full of court intrigue and rousing battle scenes, the film needed a ruthless editor. At nearly three hours, Alexander will try the patience of all but the most ardent fans of epic film.

First, however, the good. The battle scenes are hands-down the most compelling sequences in the film, even if shot in a herky-jerky, MTV style that exaggerates, rather than delineates, the chaos of battle. The first major conflict, against the Persians, features a stunning and literally eagle's-eye view of the clash of flanks, as the camera swoops and soars above the heads of the soldiers, then plunges into the midst of the carnage. In a later clash with Indians, Stone captures the ominous rumblings in the forest as war elephants crash onto the Greeks. The resulting battle eventually pits Alexander and his steed Bucephalus against the powers of the "primitive" east, as horse squares off with elephant, and man-god with barbarian. What follows is Stone at his most hallucinogenic: As seen through Alexander's fevered gaze, the landscape shimmers with blood, a crimson phantasmagoria of gore and pain and rage. It's at moments like this that one glimpses what the film could have been: like Platoon, a deeply felt meditation on war and its price.

But most of the time, the film plays like a National Geographic special. Problems begin with the film's incredibly clunky "flash-back" structure, in which Anthony Hopkins, as a retired follower of Alexander's army, crams some 50 years of Greek history down the throats of the audience, complete with maps and color commentary. The film then segues to a scene from the life of Alexander (first as a young man, then as a hot-blooded adolescent), next on to a major incident or battle (with resulting plunder), and lastly back to Hopkins, who starts the cycle over again. The entire film becomes battle, booty, speech, repeat: a cinematic shampoo from hell.

Angelina Jolie handles snakes and heavy-handed metaphor as his almost obscenely youthful mother.
This is a shame because Colin Farrell as Alexander is so talented and likeable that he deserves a superior star vehicle. Though the film emphasizes Alexander's megalomania, it also seeks to portray his insecurities as a tragic figure who strives to overcome his real doubts about how far his talents and vision can take him. When Philip, Alexander's father, offhandedly remarks to Alexander that he always looks so wounded, it's exactly the right word: Even when seemingly invulnerable, Farrell captures the look of an injured, troubled soul. More to the point, he has a charisma (and, frankly, sex appeal) that makes it easy to see why soldiers would follow him to the ends of the earth. He's the only character in the film that becomes more interesting over time. Though he never achieves truly tragic grandeur, Farrell captures the essence of a leader who must sadly acknowledge that not every dream can be fulfilled.

Angelina Jolie as Olympias, Alexander's "barbarian" mother, strikes a Slavic accent that lands somewhere between Judi Dench and Count Dracula. Besides being somewhat too young for the role (she's only a year older than Farrell in real life), Jolie is saddled with some of the heaviest-handed symbolism on screen this year. (Stone has always had the touch of a sledgehammer.) From the moment that this power-hungry matriarch begins to handle venomous snakes in her boudoir, one suspects that female symbolism has been set back a hundred years. But it is not enough, it seems, merely to handle snakes, she must also make speeches about them ... endless speeches about snakes and striking and stealth. And it is not enough for Olympias alone to have a snake fetish; Roxane (Rosario Dawson), Alexander's equally mysterious and power-hungry fiancée, sports an exotic snake bracelet, the sight of which distresses Alexander and most of the audience. We get it, Oliver, we get it: Women are like snakes!

Dir. Oliver Stone; writ. Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis; feat. Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Jared Leto (R)
Fortunately, there's nothing serpentine about Val Kilmer, putting in a competent turn as Alexander's gruff father, Philip of Macedon. The same goes for Jared Leto as Alexander's sometime lover Hephaistion. Though a few attorneys in Greece are threatening a lawsuit over Alexander's depicted bisexuality (on behalf of whom, exactly, I'm not sure. Clio, Muse of History?), there's really nothing in the movie to upset anybody. Every time that Alexander and Hephaistion become dewy-eyed with proclamations of endless ardor, and draw near their lips for some sultry smooching, Stone cheats and ends instead with a big, fraternal hug. Compared to the virtual S&M scene that passes for Alexander's wedding night, this is tame stuff indeed. But Stone is surely to be praised for tackling a politically thorny issue with honesty, if not with enthusiasm. As it turns out, the affair between Alexander and Hephaistion is the only completely happy romance in the film. Perhaps Stone is having the last laugh, after all.

In fact, the hullabaloo over Alexander's bisexuality has drowned out what should be the controversial aspect of the film: its parallels with the current Iraq war. This is, after all, a movie about the leader of a "free" Western nation who invades Mesopotamia, slaughters its haughty and diabolical leaders, and then leaves the area in shambles during the subsequent power vacuum. (When the enemy king, Darius, first appears on camera, he looks remarkably like a Muslim cleric - it's like watching CNN.) But the ethics of Alexander's colonization are never called into question.

It's enough, it seems, for Alexander to have vision, determination, and strong leadership. This is a surprising, even disconcerting, take from the director of Platoon; one can only hope that Stone's next film is full of great things again.