Written & Directed by Oliver Stone
Warner Brothers Pictures
After the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hollywood has been embroiled in a battle to find the next big battle epic featuring swashbuckling heroes, spectacular battle scenes, intense confrontations and special effects galore.
Having bled comic books and old TV shows dry, the studios have turned their focus to films about great military heroes for their fix, providing the impetus for the lackluster Troy earlier this year and the production of Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Films currently under production about both Napoleon and Hannibal undoubtedly ensure a continuation of this trend.
Relying on more fiction than fact and, despite putting the most buff and beautiful stars around in loads of armor, they still haven’t gotten it right. The long delayed, highly contentious and much lauded Alexander has been touted as the film that will change everything and restore dignity to the genre of grand historical films
Alexander pulls out all the stops, featuring terrific fight scenes, fearsome battles, great cinematography and lots of masterful effects designed to shock and awe. Writer/director Oliver Stone needed to put forth a Herculean effort of his own to get this film made. Zeus himself would be proud of his tenacity, drive and attention to detail.
The film chronicles the life of Alexander The Great, one of the greatest military tacticians who ever lived. His controversial life as a leader, lover and soldier has lived on in legend for thousands of years. In life, Alexander was larger than life and was determined to bring ‘democracy” to the rest of the known world (an idea that resonates loudly in the current climate). However, like so many ancient leaders before him and immediately after him, Alexander’s hubris and self-determination subsequently led him to confrontations with those around him, ensuring an early demise. Stone’s Alexander is not only a sexy beast unafraid of slaying his enemies, confidants and advisors, but also as a visionary statesman trying to build trade routes, unite economies, educate the masses and unify two continents
Oliver Stone has successfully battled charges of fabrication and embellishment before and will undoubtedly face them again. His zeal to bring the story of Alexander and the monumental epoch in which he lived is evident throughout the film. Stone obviously loves the duality of the main character as both statesman and conqueror, displaying an understanding of his significance in history as a figure of change and as a catalyst for traditional democratic values.
Alexander features a star-studded main ensemble cast rounded out by up and comers. It’s a tactic that worked well for JFk, but not so effectively here. The cast that Stone has assembled is handcuffed, hindered and haunted by a terrible script, slow pacing and a plot that is both hard to grasp and impossible for the average film lover to follow.
Stone’s failure lays in the fact that historical background and context, so crucial for subject matter about which American audiences have, at best, rudimentary knowledge is largely absent. Thus, the importance of the rivalry between the Persian and Greek Empires is never really explained. Attempts to explore Alexander’s childhood fail simply because we just don’t care about him enough to sit through 3 hours of him beating up on Persia and the Orient.
Although the fight scenes are terrific, Stone’s multiple scenes of intense confrontation between Alexander and his parents, colleagues or enemies are oftentimes too wordy and last far too long. The lack of setting the film’s tone hampers the film’s pacing as well, leaving the moviegoer to absorb a film that at times plods along incessantly.
Irish bad boy Colin Farrell plays in the title role, the most challenging role of his career. Farrell does an adequate job of filling the immense shoes of the role with a fine command of Alexander’s brooding and raging but failing to convincingly capture the inner turmoil that fueled his legendary military campaigns.
Joining Farrell is Angelina Jolie as Olympias, Alexander’s unscrupulous and scheming mother. Olympias is the strong, determined and intense catalyst for Alexander, driving her son to claim the throne for which she believes he is destined. This was undoubtedly a difficult role for Jolie. Nonetheless, she rises to the occasion by mastering a new accent, being around loads of live snakes and making the audience forget that she was an roughly the same age as Farrell, yet magically playing his mother. For the most part, Jolie is on the mark, playing Olympias over the top but with great intensity. The chemistry between her and co-star Farrell is one of the movie’s few bright spots.
Stone alum Val Kilmer has been cast against type as King Phillip, Alexander’s father. Stone seems to have forgotten that there is a reason why Kilmer hasn’t made many films recently. Kilmer’s act works well initially, he’s mean, fierce, tough and ruthless. As the movie drags on, his act gets old too quickly to hold the movie together. Hidden behind the makeup and cranky bravado is an actor who really has no reason for being in this film.
Like Jolie, Rosario Dawson is a delight to watch as Alexander’s bride, Roxanne, Dawson exudes both an enticing exotic toughness and demeanor befitting a sexy warrior princess.
Despite great roles in Requiem for A Dream and Fight Club, sometime rock star and sometime actor Jared Leto still hasn’t caught on in the multiplexes for being the terrific actor that he is. Hephaistion, Alexander’s confident and lover is by far the meatiest role of his career. It should have been the one that utilized his rawness and roughness as an actor more adeptly. Although his character remains the catalyst for Alexander’s inner turmoil and struggle for acceptance, a bad script kills any opportunity for Leto to breakout.
As for the rest of the ensemble, it is sad to see incredible actors like Christopher Plummer and Sir Anthony Hopkins go to waste as Stone has, pushing Plummer’s Aristotle to a few early scenes and boxing Hopkins into narration and on camera transition scenes. You’d think that a philosophical giant like Aristotle would have more to say and do in a film about his early pupil. One might also think that having Hopkins aboard (as Ptolemy), one of the finest actors of his generation, would somehow inspire Stone to provide for him a more substantial part. He, like Plummer, are relegated to roles that resemble mere cameos.
Alexander really is a Greek tragedy. It’s a film about a life that remains so bold and so important that telling it is almost insurmountable. Not even great performances from Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie can save this film from crumbling like the ancient ruins of Alexander’s era.