The shadow of many an earlier film falls heavily on this one. As the movie opens, Alexander (Colin Farrell) expires on his deathbed, casting a precious ring to the ground in a way that recalls Charles Foster Kane's final moments. It's the first sign of Stone's disheartening attempt to whip his material into shape by borrowing techniques that worked so well for his predecessors. This is a trick he pulled off with flair in his meticulously Wellesian "Nixon" (1995), but here the magic doesn't work. Woodenly narrated by Alexander's now aged comrade in arms (Anthony Hopkins), the film dutifully lumbers through the highlights of the youthful conqueror's career, from the tempestuous conflicts with his sorceress mother (Angelina Jolie) and thuggish royal father (Val Kilmer) to his glorious but ultimately futile victories in India, here presented as Alexander's Vietnam. The only departure from straightforward chronology comes as the movie limps into its third hour, when we are thrust into a bafflingly extended flashback that kills off what little narrative propulsion remains.
In the way of battles, we are given two jarring set pieces, awash in spurting blood and often dominated by the perspective of the common foot soldier, reminding us of the sheer carnage, terror and chaos on which the general's glory rests. Stone's Alexander, however, is as much a lover as a fighter. He's got a thing for his mom, and fulfills his husbandly duty to his barbarian wife (Rosario Dawson) with savage efficiency. But the love of his life is his trusted adviser and boyhood wrestling partner, Hephaistion (a dewy-eyed Jared Leto). A JFK who swings both ways, he's even got a eunuch on the side (Francisco Bosch). As if to compensate for the unconventionality of Alexander's love life, Stone, who shares in the writing credits, smothers the love scenes in oozy sentimentality (Alexander to Hephaistion: "I'm nothing without you!").
Plutarch immortalized Alexander's "melting eye," and it is no surprise that the studmuffiny Farrell is at his most compelling when at his sappiest. But he comes up short when portraying Alexander the political theorist. For Stone, Alexander is the thinking man's tyrant, fueled not only by a longing for fame, but also by the dream of ridding the East of despotism, and merging the peoples of the earth into a universal state. Clearly to Stone this is the heart of the matter, and the very path of Alexander's campaigns, from Babylon (near present-day Baghdad) through to Kandahar, the Kabul valley, and the Hindu Kush (where bin Laden may now lurk), lends an almost eerie topicality to the ancient tale.
Such parallels might have made for gripping relevance, but Stone's storytelling is so sodden, the film so grueling, that not even the fate of nations can long distract us from our boredom. Beds, battles and bluster dominate the screen by turns, but there's hardly a scene in which the momentous issues at stake crystallize into a dramatically memorable confrontation, despite some heroic efforts by the company. Jolie, for example, energetically chews up the tapestry as she calls down curses on all and sundry, although she oddly adopts what sounds like the accent of a Cold War Hollywood Russian. Kilmer, too, roars valiantly, but hokey exclamations like "By Hera!" and "In the name of Dionysus!" cannot leaven the dreary ponderousness of the script.
In what is supposed to be an especially moving scene, Alexander tries to cheer a dying friend with yet another speech about political transformation. In words that only a bureaucrat could warm to, he looks forward to a time when "populations will mix and travel freely." As he's rambling on, his friend gives up the ghost. At this point, the audience I sat with instantly burst into laughter. I suspect we were all thinking the same thing: Alexander bored the poor guy to death. *1/2 S
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