directed by Oliver Stone
starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Plummer
With the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hollywood has been embroiled in a battle to find the next big battle epic. It’s looked all over for films that could feature swashbuckling heroes, epic battle scenes, intense confrontations and special effects galore.
Having bled comic books and old TV shows dry, the studios are now turning their focus to films about great military heroes for their fix. That was the impetus earlier this year for the lackluster Troy and also one of the core reasons why Oliver Stone’s latest film Alexander has been made. The trend will undoubtedly continue, as planned epic films about both Napoleon and Hannibal are currently in production.
What the studios missed though is that it is easier to make a battlefield epic from fiction than from fact. Despite putting the buffest and most 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 historical epic films
The last of 2004’s highly anticipated big budget films, Alexander pulls out all the stops. It features terrific fight scenes, epic battles, great cinematography and lots of masterful effects designed to shock and awe. Writer/director Oliver Stone needed a Herculean effort of his own to get this film made. Zeus himself would be proud of his tenacity, drive and attention to detail.
Alexander chronicles the life of Alexander The Great, one of the greatest military tacticians who ever lived. His life as a leader, lover and soldier has lived on in controversy 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 a contemporary setting). 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, which eventually led to his early demise. It is this immense, massive life that director Oliver Stone explores intricately. Stone’s Alexander was 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.
Any biopic made in Hollywood these days leaves itself open for controversy and charges of fabrication and embellishment. These are charges that Oliver Stone has successfully battled before and will undoubtedly face again. His zeal to bring the story of Alexander and the monumental epoch he lived in is evident throughout the film. Stone obviously loves Alexander’s duality as a statesman and conqueror. He also understands his significance in history as a figure of change and as a catalyst for traditional democratic values.
Having said that, there is not a lot of stuff to speak well of with Alexander as a motion picture. It’s a biopic that claims to be more than it really is. Although it is an ambitious epic film recounting the life of Alexander of Macedon, it lacks the the greatness of other film biographies. Alexander contains none of the grand completeness of Lawrence of Arabia or the sprawling importance of Gandhi.
Like those films and other more recent telefilms, Alexander features a star-studded main ensemble cast that is rounded out by up and coming stars. It’s a tactic that worked well for JFK, but doesn’t work very well here because the cast that Stone has assembled is handcuffed, hindered and haunted by a terrible script, terrible pacing and a plot that is both hard to grasp and impossible for the average film lover to follow.
Most Americans have a rudimentary knowledge of who Alexander of Macedon really was. Any sort of biopic about Alexander the Great requires the writer to condense a great deal of historical information quickly to properly frame the film. Oliver Stone completely fails to do this and it ruins his picture. He never properly sets the right contextual tones necessary to establish Alexander’s significance in the pantheon of ancient history necessary to keep the audience’s interested piqued.
On so many levels Stone completely blows it. From the beginning narrative, Stone introduces us to Alexander’s era haphazardly. The importance of the rivalry between the Persian and Greek Empires is never really explained. It is from the ashes of their timeless conflict that Alexander emerged as the first recorded all-world despot, explorer, conqueror and visionary in recorded history.
Cinematically, Stone fails to establish any connection with the boyhood Alexander. From the beginning he’s just sort of there, damaged and destined as this shell that audiences don’t feel compelled to care about. Simply stated, we just don’t care about him enough to sit through three hours of him beating up on Persia and the Orient.
This brings us to the issue of pacing. By now Stone should know that long doesn’t always mean better. His films are always notoriously epic, which either works really well for him or not at all. Here the length is about 25 minutes too much, destroying the framework of Alexander itself. This film would be a lot better if it didn’t drag so much. 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 aforementioned lack of setting the film’s tone properly hampers the film’s pacing as well, leaving the moviegoer to absorb a film that at times plods along incessantly.
Then there is the script. The dialogue at times sounds flippant, contrived and unmotivated. It suffers at times from being completely over the head of those watching the film. Stone plays it fast and loose, expecting his audience to remember the vast amount of who, what, where and when that has been thrown at them. To his credit, he shouldn’t be expected to dumb down his film, However he should be accountable for its lack of cohesion.
Irish bad boy Colin Farrell portrays Alexander, the most challenging role of his career. Farrell does an adequate job of filling the immense shoes this role offers. He’s got Alexander’s brooding and raging down pat, but fails to convincingly capture the inner turmoil that fueled throughout his legendary military campaigns. To be fair, one of the tricky bits about playing Alexander the Great is capturing the fact that Alexander was so many things that he was so many people; conqueror, visionary, lover, warrior and world leader. So it is not surprising that Colin Farrell had his work cut for him when he signed on for this part. His performance is stellar (although it sometimes fades into Mel Gibson-ness before moving into Russell Crowe-like territory).
Joining Farrell is Angelina Jolie as Olympias, Alexander’s unscrupulous and scheming mother. Olympias is the strong, determined and intense catalyst for Alexander. She drives her son to claim the throne and reach for the greatness she believes he is destined for. Olympias is one of those masterful cinematic creations that are not quite insane, but not quite embedded in reality either. Likewise, this was a difficult role for Jolie. Nonetheless she rose to the occasion by mastering a new accent, being around loads of live snakes and making the audience forget that she is 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 intensity and ferocity. 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; however 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. She’s been an actress on the rise for several years; this role may help put her into leading actress terrain. As Roxane, Alexander’s bride, Dawson exudes both an enticing exotic toughness and a sexy warrior princess demeanor. Roxane’s a take-no-prisoners gal who won’t let her husband, world conqueror or not, push her around.
Alexander offered a huge opportunity for sometime rock star and sometime actor Jared Leto to bust out into the heavyweight class of rising young actors. Despite great roles in Requiem for A Dream and Fight Club, he still hasn’t caught on in the multiplexes for being the terrific actor that he is. Hephaistion, Alexander’s confidant 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 has killed any opportunity for Leto to break out.
As for the rest of the ensemble, it is sad when you have two incredible actors like Christopher Plummer and Sir Anthony Hopkins to waste in your movie. That’s what Stone does here, pushing Plummer’s Aristotle to the back with 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, Alexander. I would also think that having Hopkins, one of the finest actors of his generation, aboard would somehow inspire Stone to get him some better scenes. He, like Plummer has been completely abandoned to almost a mere cameo.
Oliver Stone is a director who loves to use actors he is familiar with. So it should surprise no one that Anthony Hopkins plays the film’s central scope, the aged Pharaoh Ptolemy. As the movie’s narrator, Ptolemy should help establish the film’s historical framework and move the scenes along. Hopkins holds up his end of the bargain by giving a terrific performance that should have been expanded.
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.
Alexander The Movie: www.alexanderthemovie.com