Even at those moments when I didn’t like Alexander or thought it was unintentionally funny (which occurred several times in the course of the movie’s 173 minutes), I was still aware that this is a serious work by a forceful and important filmmaker who has a distinctive tone of voice. By way of comparison, I never felt that awareness while watching the bloated mess that was Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy.
Love him (which I rarely have) or hate him, Oliver Stone is truly a distinctive filmmaker — and a pretty darned contentious one, at that. That’s evident early on in Alexander, when Stone kicks sand into the face of Peterson’s sanitizing job on the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus by having Patroclus referred to as Achilles’ “lover” (Peterson’s film turned them into cousins so as not to frighten the horses).
And while it’s true that Stone doesn’t include any actual sex scenes between Alexander (Colin Farrell) and the man generally understood to he his lover, Hephaestion (Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream), he leaves no doubt about the nature of their relationship or about Alexander’s proclivities. Indeed, a group of Greek lawyers is currently so incensed over the depiction of Alexander as gay or at least bisexual (though it’s a generally acknowledged fact) that they are threatening Warner Bros. with a lawsuit. (The lawyers are evidently unaware that under U.S. law you can’t be sued for libeling the dead, and I suppose they think that the time-honored phrase “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” actually refers to Nia Vardolos’ movies.)
When the Greeks actually see the movie, one wonders if they’ll be nearly as upset by the incestuous implications of Alexander picking a wife (Rosario Dawson, Shattered Glass) who looks like his mother, Olympia (Angelina Jolie), and then copying his father’s (Val Kilmer) “romantic” approach by essentially raping her. Well, at least that encounter is heterosexual, so it probably won’t raise their hackles nearly so much.
Stone and Warner Bros. may be applauded for going as far as they do with this material, though I suspect Stone was forced to tone it down. And while there’s much to be admired about the film, I’m also aware of its numerous shortcomings, many of which stem from the screenplay.
As is common in these sagas of the ancient world, the characters are less likely to have conversations than speechify, and, as usual, this speechifying often sounds like bargain-basement Shakespeare. However, the speeches serve at least one function: Since you can usually see them coming (Alexander has one before every battle), they’re a good cue for a bathroom break in a movie of this length.
Of course, there are the usual unintentional howlers, too. My personal favorite is one character’s assessment of Alexander as someone who can “bring the Greeks to their knees.” (I suspect the lawyers aren’t going to like that one, either.)
Alexander has some other problems. Why does Jolie affect a Natasha Badinov accent? And while it might be acceptable that Farrell’s Alexander is going to sound a bit Irish, I burst out laughing when one of his generals spoke in so thick a Scottish accent that it was almost impossible to understand a word he said. I expected him to follow up with, “Ach aye Glasgae ach.”
In addition, I couldn’t help but wonder why Alexander and Hephaestion wear enough eye make-up to pass for glam rockers, though it seemed not unreasonable on Alexander’s boy-toy, Bagoas (dancer Francisco Bosch). And then there’s the Vangelis score, which is sometimes OK, but more often than not is so overstated that it becomes amusing in its sheer melodrama. So much for the downside.
On the upside, the battles are truly spectacular and unrelentingly bloody (there are no prettied-up images of war here), and they convey the kind of thick-of-battle confusion and horror that I’ve only seen once before, in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. They also don’t smack of CGI effects run wild (as in Troy). Rather than a breathtaking effect, you get the sense of breathtaking filmmaking — a pleasant change these days.
And, as I said, all this resonates with the distinctive tone of this filmmaker’s voice. Even when Stone errs — turning Alexander’s last big battle (the one with the elephants) into a series of LSD-chrome images after our hero is mortally wounded — he does so with his typical panache. Sure, Stone’s use of symbolism is, as usual, on the clunky side (see the bit where Olympia “divines” that her son is dead), and he isn’t always original (the “key” to Alexander’s psyche at his death is brazenly pilfered from Citizen Kane), but he’s always true to himself as a filmmaker and that’s worth a lot.
So will Alexander be a big hit or a folly on a grand scale? I suspect it’ll be closer to the latter, but I do know it’s an admirable attempt. Rated R for violence, sexuality and nudity
— reviewed by Ken Hanke