ALEXANDER— “The bigger they are”……universally ridiculed by critics, failing at the boxoffice, recut four times by the director, this enterprise remains almost as much an overreach as its subject’s subjugation of everything he could lay his hands on.
Nothing if not ‘intense’ personified, Oliver Stone’s passionate output includes some of the most audacious political dramas ever whipped up by a studio-backed talent, some of the most harrowing combat scenes (by a guy who knows what that’s like), some of the best period evocations (chiefly the 1960’s) and a lot of powerhouse acting. At his best, he’s one of The Best.
He can pull a wanker, though, and here, his gifts for marshaling argument, action and actors too often get lost, overcome by too vast and remote a theme and ‘hero’, too much mumbo-jumbo (enough already, with Dionysus and spirit-animal motif ), too much plain old tinkering.
Like its protagonist, this movie strives. It’s brave. It’s foolish. One trouble with a figure like Alexander The Great is that his kind of ambition is just not very appealing. It’s historically interesting (unless you happened to be in his way). But film drama translates most readily to emotional appeal. We want to care about people we’ll spend three hours with (hot sex excepted). “I’d feel that way” worked for William Wallace in Braveheart because the anguish and resultant rage at injustice came across, plus he had humor, and well, heart. Here, we’re supposed to relate to someone, who unlike Wallace’s peasant, is lucky enough to be royalty, and doesn’t merely want to kick some snotty soldiers out of his bog–he wants to conquer the frickin’ World.
There is a lot to command attention. The costumes and art direction are superb. Some of the long shots of his army struggling over mountains and deserts are beautifully composed. Three performances click . Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy, and Christopher Plummer in a brief bit as Aristotle, are a pleasure: these graceful, cagey pros work charm on their twisty speeches. Angelina Jolie makes an odd yet effective choice by way of an accent, playing Al’s mom as though she might be a Slav or Magyar. Jolie dives into the fray with spirit, and she exudes enough carnality to cook Mt. Olympus .
There are two big battle scenes, and half of each one fairly stun: Stone shows no quarter at close-quarter. Vangelis’ score is effective in these passages.
What’s off, though, is considerable, lamentable and strange. The other part of arranging those big battles is the overview required to have them make sense to the audience, and Stone has them too confusing to easily follow, and attention-stealing camera jazz disjoints the flow. That part of the Vangelis music that doesn’t work here fights itself by over-swell, hammering This Is A Big Moment.
A jarring decision has most of the other actors deliver their lines in resolute Irish or Scots brogues, as opposed to the English or American intonations that ‘ancient’ movies have traditionally relied on for a standard. Obviously, one could quibble about having a Greek or Roman from a few thousand years ago sound like they’re from Wales or Iowa, but it’s something our collective movie-ears have adapted to for decades —simply, it works—and Stone’s new tack only serves to call attention to itself. Val Kilmer, so perfect in Stone’s The Doors, goes Irish here, and it just doesn’t fly.
Another noble try, but still a thud, the script. No one in this movie talks: they all make speeches, constantly declaim, posture, shout—and they do it in a pseudo-Shakespearean manner. The lines that aren’t Bard-loaded are also delivered full-throttle, and clank like armor: “Alex-AN-der! Be RE-son-a-BLE!” This, to a guy who is trying to conquer the World. Oy…
The telling does tiptoe where other epics have not traipsed, into Al’s bisexuality, but even that seems adrift among all the competitive yelling from a swarm of indistinguishable lieutenants and colonels, another area Stone fumbles. In Braveheart, Gibson drew a slew of vivid supporting characters into play, and they all stood out from one another. Stone’s own Platoon made fifteen different guys, wearing the same uniforms, unique and identifiable. Here, all blend into a mob: some just sport more mascara than others.
Colin Farrell is usually superb, but he’s dealt a no-win situation here. With more speeches than everyone else, motives so lofty as to be megalomania, it’s not a warm and fuzzy setup. Scrappy as he is, he doesn’t convincingly project the physical bearing or gravity to command a battle-hardened army. He works it, but remains ill-served by both material and direction.
The story was attempted before, with Richard Burton in 1956, and then—hang on—William Shatner, in a 1964 TV pilot (with Adam West, for added camp-pain-ing.) The Burton film (co-starring the estimable Fredric March) failed, and Shatner’s pilot was so lame it wasn’t aired until 1968, when he was safely aboard the Enterprise and West was busy socking The Joker.
Competing in 2004 against Troy, it didn’t do well in the States, but managed to make an impressive $167,300,000 total worldwide. Against its $155,000,000 cost, however, it bled red. Stone’s recut versions did sell 4,500,000 copies on disc. Ran 175 minutes out the gate, as much as 214 in the subsequent Director’s Cuts.
Despite a great film-makers ambitions, Alexander of Macedon, the visionary who cut the Gordian Knot, and muscled his way from Greece to the Ganges, remains elusive, books about him gathering dust on library shelves, providing object lessons unheeded by Alexander wannabes at West Point.
Shot in Morocco, Malta and Thailand with a cast including Jared Leto and Rosario Dawson. A great book suggestion on one piece of Al’s puzzle is “The Afghan Campaign” by Steven Pressfield. It doesn’t appear anyone in the Pentagon read it.