Sitting ramrod-straight in the saddle, his billows of golden warrior-angel hair flowing, if not glowing, in the sun, Alexander (Colin Farrell), the invincible crusader of ancient Macedonia, stares across the Persian desert as he prepares to conquer yet another corner of the earth. The battle will be bloody, but the spoils great indeed! As Anthony Hopkins narrates in tones so quaintly archival he sounds just about ready to keel over, we are told, with the glum explicitness of a textbook, everything there is to know about one hero’s idealism, his conflicts, his journey. Alexander, you see, is a man possessed by desires at once noble and private — by his quest to spread the glories of civilization throughout the world, but also by his need to avenge, and triumph over, the flawed legacy of his drunken ineffectual father, King Philip (Val Kilmer), and his treacherous, Dionysian-vamp mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie). We know all of these things because Oliver Stone’s 2-hour-and-55-minute Alexander keeps drumming them into our heads.
Looking at Colin Farrell, however, we don’t see much apart from a gruff young actor with puffy blond locks that don’t match his caterpillar eyebrows and a fixed scowl of vague and nagging impassivity. He has no dynamism, no obsessive interior force; everything we’re told about Alexander remains an abstraction, an index-card idea for a character pasted onto Farrell’s less-than-mythic presence. As a man, he’s grand in theory but hollow at the center, and so is the movie.
You know a Hollywood spectacle is in trouble when its hero yearns to go forward, vanquishing more armies and taking over more lands, but his soldiers just want to go home — and the audience sides with the weary mutineers. Alexander is an exhausted epic, one that Stone has directed with an almost startling lack of personality or vision. The movie may be packed with historical detail, but who cares when it lacks the basic coherence and romantic brutality of Spartacus or Gladiator or even Troy? I say this with sorrow, since Stone, at the time of JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon, had evolved into the most exciting filmmaker of his era. Yet both his dramatic instincts and his audacious, hypnotic craft — the visual electricity, the visceral grip on the meaning of violence, the heady crisscross of character and history — have abandoned him in this stiff-jointed olden-world dud.
The early scenes are promising, as the boy Alexander (Connor Paolo) displays his will by sparring with Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), then taming and riding a wild horse. Kilmer, gnashing his teeth like a cranky pirate, with one eye socket scarred shut, and Jolie, twirling snakes and snarling in a Mata Hari accent, play Alexander’s estranged and warring parents with such colorful hammy flair that you can almost forgive the film for making Alexander seem like the world’s first spawn of overripe Method acting. But then Farrell, looking like a dewy male concubine, takes over the role, and before he has even had a chance to settle in, Stone makes a leap in chronology that has to be one of the most jaw-dropping structural mistakes I have ever witnessed in a major movie. He cuts ahead to that Persian battle, with Alexander having already become a famous warrior, even though we haven’t seen him claim victory in so much as a fistfight. What should have been the heart and guts of Alexander — how one man turned into a conqueror — is instead something the audience has to take entirely on faith.
The battle itself is vast, with mile-wide digital armies and lots of authoritative gougings, though Stone works with rather impersonal finesse and somewhat fuzzy combat logistics. The film’s other big melee, set in an Indian forest, with Alexander’s army attacked by bejeweled fighters who ride shrieking and stomping elephants, is, by contrast, violently thrilling. It’s the one sequence in the film touched by Stone’s ferocity. Alexander is dotted with square symbols, such as the soaring bird that guides our hero, and Alexander himself is all high-flown talk, whether he’s whipping up his men for war or gazing into the eyes of his comrade and chief commander, Hephaistion, played by Jared Leto with the doe-like bashful earnestness of the young Michael Stipe. These two are supposed to share the lordly spiritual love of ancient men, but considering that Alexander marries the Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson) and joins her in a night of borderline-absurd ”animalistic” sex, Alexander is almost teasingly skittish about the men’s erotic relationship. For all their moist glances, the film, in effect, plays a game of do-they-or-don’t-they.
As Alexander conquers Persia and Central Asia, then moves on to the next land, his drive, as portrayed, makes him seem less relentless than fickle, like a lothario tossing away last night’s girl. Yet we can’t get a fix on him, since the film keeps insisting on his transcendent nobility. I think that’s where Stone went wrong. His most indelible characters, like Jim Morrison or NBK’s Mickey and Mallory, have always been poised between the romantic and the demonic. Alexander’s ”greatness,” on the other hand, becomes the stuff of plaster saints.