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Dustin Putman

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Alexander (2004)
1 Star

Directed by Oliver Stone
Cast: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Anthony Hopkins, Connor Paolo, Patrick Carroll, Christopher Plummer, Elliot Cowan, Ian Beattie, Joseph Morgan, Denis Conway, Neil Jackson, Garrett Lombard, Chris Aberdein, Rory McCann, David Bedella, Raz Degan, Brian Blessed, Jessie Camm
2004 – 173 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and sexuality/nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 23, 2004.

To sit in the dark and witness the supposed-to-be epic, 173-minute spectacle that is "Alexander" is to be utterly mystified at how writer-director Oliver Stone (2000's "Any Given Sunday"), an innovative and usually reliable filmmaker, could go so disastrously wrong. A biopic of one of history's greatest and most successful leaders, the film fails to enlighten the viewer about who this man really was. He is largely portrayed as insecure, unimposing, and oftentimes weepy, not exactly traits you would expect from a renowned king who managed to conquer nearly the entire known world by the time of his death at age 32. This flaw, which should safely fall on the shoulders of Stone and co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle (2002's "K-19: The Widowmaker") and Laeta Kalogridis, is, indeed, a fatal one, but it only scratches the surface of the problems this picture is burdened with.

"Alexander" lumbers from one minor episode to the next in the life of Alexander (Colin Farrell), who is relinquished the crown as King of Macedonia following the death of his father, Philip (Val Kilmer). Uninterested in documenting the many battles he waged in order to conquer much of the European continent—only two are even glimpsed onscreen—director Stone, instead, focuses on Alexander's yearning to be a great king amid constant doubts; his rocky relationship with his sorceress mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie); the wife he took in Roxane (Rosario Dawson) as a supposed means of fathering a child; and his one true love, childhood best friend and warrior Hephaistion (Jared Leto).

There is no clear-cut plot, no thematic palpability, and no rhyme or reason to what Oliver Stone has chosen to include and leave out in his final cut. The film consistently plays like a compilation of scenes from the cutting-room floor, with all of the material that should have been shown skimmed over by the narrator, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins). Because of this, "Alexander" is not only a soulless mess, but also exempt of character or historical depth.

The first time Roxane is glimpsed, for example, she is dancing with her group of fellow Asian dancers. The second time she is seen, Alexander is marrying her, with the delirious suggestion from Ptolemy's voice-over that he may have actually loved her. Tellingly, the central scene involving Rosario Dawson (2002's "25th Hour"), as Roxane, finds her in a violent wrestling match with Alexander in the bedroom that leads to them tearing off their clothes, knife-fighting, and culminating with Alexander practically raping her. Meanwhile, the first of the two battles, this one waged against Persian forces, comes out of nowhere, appearing directly after the death of Philip and Alexander's rise to the throne—which isn't even seen until an awkwardly placed flashback over an hour later—and offering no background on the subject and little sense to any of it. Even as an action sequence, it is a failure, the shaky, confused camerawork making the fight close to incomprehensible.

Much publicity has been made of the homosexual undertones in "Alexander"—he, as so many men back in that era, was openly bisexual. What is seen onscreen aren't undertones at all, but, surprisingly, a major running plot point. For a hugely budgeted studio picture, director Oliver Stone is downright brazen in what he has been allowed to portray from this part of Alexander's life, and it is the picture's one aspect that should be applauded. There is never any question that Alexander and Hephaistion are deeply in love, with plentiful longing stares and passionate embraces. Furthermore, there are none-too-subtle allusions that Alexander is about to be "serviced" by his effeminate male servant in one scene, whom he is later shown kissing. This gay element is bound to turn off a fair share of close-minded mainstream audiences, and may just seal the deal of its box-office failure, but it stands as a courageous and transcendent move that is much appreciated. It is unfortunate, then, that the love story between Alexander and Hephaistion is so haphazardly and sappily written. It also doesn't help that, with their gorgeous, flowing locks, their eyeliner, the showy rings on their fingers, the jewelry around their necks, and even scars on their bulging biceps that take on the appearance of tattoos, these two soulmates look more like modern-day rock stars than valid ancient warriors.

Colin Farrell (2003's "SWAT"), he of the thick Irish brogue, darkly handsome looks, and bad-boy reputation, may not appear at the onset as an obvious match to play the part of the blond Alexander the Great, but he handles the role with skill and willingness. It isn't his fault, after all, that Alexander has been so sketchily written. As mother Olympias, Angelina Jolie (2004's "Taking Lives") takes on an odd Russian accent that actually works in spite of itself, and hams up her scenes with a rabid, juicy aplomb desperately missing from the rest of the film. Jolie doesn't have much more to do than handle and play with her pet snakes while looking suspicious, but she does it well. As one-eyed father Philip, Val Kilmer (2004's "Spartan") drinks heavily and stumbles his way through his scenes. Finally, Jared Leto (2002's "Panic Room") brings unforced intensity to Hephaistion, even if he mostly stands in the background undressing Alexander with his eyes.

"Alexander" is an enormous cinematic mess destined to gain an infamy rivaled by the likes of 1980's "Heaven's Gate" and 1997's "The Postman." As an epic adventure, the movie is slow to the point of almost being inert; it takes almost a full hour before it begins to catch its stride and things start happening in the vague outline posing as a story, and even then the scenes arrive with wobbly inconsistency. One spends so much time questioning the how's and why's of director Oliver Stone's inane insertion of throwaway parts of Alexander's life, while discarding the major events, no less, that it is impossible to get involved and take a rooting interest in the goings-on. The rapturous music score by Vangelis (1982's "Blade Runner") is grand and sweeping, and would be perfect for an epic more deserving. Placed here, however, it is almost laughable, the high emotions brought about from the music never coming close to matching the stifling indifference found on the screen.

"Alexander" is not so much mind-numbingly boring as it is intriguingly nonsensical. There is a train-wreck quality to the proceedings that cannot be denied; even when the film seems like it can get any worse, it does, which keeps things fascinating for all the wrong reasons. The only visually and emotionally resonant moment for actual intended reasons is the third-act, elephant-filled battle against India, but it comes too little, too late to make a difference. "Alexander" is a bloated, embarrassing miscalculation on the part of director Oliver Stone. He may have set out to make an awfully powerful motion picture about a ruler "who conquered everything he set out to, except Hephaistion's thighs," but what he has really concocted is just plain awful.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman