It was only a matter of time, particularly following the Oscar-plated success of Gladiator, for someone to encase the exploits of Alexander the Great in celluloid -- after all, the Macedonian conqueror, whose military prowess had by the age of 25 landed most of the ancient world under his rule, seems a natural subject for the world that's panted over the enigmatic heroics of T.E. Lawrence, Patton and William Wallace. Names got thrown around (Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Baz Luhrmann) before the project finally fell, appropriately enough, to Oliver Stone, whose own obsessions are scarcely less Homeric than his subject's. Stone labors overtime to connect the resurrected sword 'n' sandal spectacle to his politically inquiring frenzies -- the result, Alexander, goes wrong in about a thousand different ways, yet its questioning spirit shames the epic genre's fatuous complacency, amply displayed earlier this year in Troy.
Alexander is barely out of his training toga as the film begins pouring the hot lava of Promethean legend over him -- cuddling with witchy mother Olympia (Angelina Jolie, pitched somewhere between Euripidean amazon and Van Helsing villainess), squabbling with loutish, one-eyed dad King Philip (Val Kilmer), challenging Aristotle's (Christopher Plummer) view of the world, and swearing to outdo the greatness of his mythological hero, Achilles. Landing in power through mom's machinations, young Alexander (Colin Farrell) orchestrates his frontier-busting military campaign into and beyond Persian territory, stretching his empire all the way to India. Before reaching his Hindu Waterloo, however, there's also marriage to dusky Persian belly-dancer Roxane (Rosario Dawson) and Oedipal furies churning all around, to say nothing of Alexander's sexual ambiguity, embodied mostly via moist glances with longtime pal Hephaistion (Jared Leto).
Alexander's B.C. setting may strike many as an odd canvas for Stone, whose fervid, post-'60s radicalism usually insists on contemporary outlets. Truth is, the he-man theatrics of fanatical conquerors have always haunted the director's cinema, though his most explicit explorations of the theme have been in early screenplays moderated by the presence of such directors as John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), Brian De Palma (Scarface) and Michael Cimino (Year of the Dragon). It's easy to see this as having been Stone's pet project for decades, and easier yet to spot the links drawn between Alexander's bloody campaign into Babylon and George W. Bush's own imperialistic thrust towards Baghdad, complete with guerilla warfare stretched over years in search of an elusive Arab fiend. Yet it is the director's ambivalence toward the ruler that muddles up the film's analysis of myth and heroism, ultimately undermining its rigor where it should have enriched its complexities.
The film's opening, with old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) pontificating an eulogy to Egyptian scribes, pelts the fallen warrior with such awed terms as "colossus," a "force of Nature" whose failures makes other men's victories look puny, etc. etc. etc., and that's just 40 years after his death -- Stone's view from a vantage point of more than two millenniums is hardly less adoring. His Alexander rallies his troops Braveheart-style and is repeatedly associated with animal vigor (stallions, lions, bears, and most notably a CGI eagle), filmed in imposing Riefenstahlian low-angle against a blazing sun. Taking a cue from all this adulation, Stone's filmmaking has never been more static: his usually hyperkinetic stylistics, which in Natural Born Killers, Nixon and Any Given Sunday presented pop saturation churned out of the characters' splitting psyches, are here ponderous and reverential, as leadenly conventional as Ben-Hur. (Tellingly, Stone's direction flickers to life briefly during Alexander's moment of defeat in a ridiculous-sublime showdown between faithful steed and charging Indian elephant, an epiphany that bleaches the screen crimson -- bloodlust made psychedelically visual.)
At the same time, Alexander's civilization-birthing heroism is just as often questioned, challenged, put within quotation marks. Much of it is unintentional, stemming from the miscasting at the movie's center: Farrell, donning surfer blonde locks and Cocker Spaniel eyes, is such a neurotic pipsqueak that his presence lends a layer of irony to Ptolemy's hushed incense-burning that was probably not intended. More to the point, however, is Alexander's homo- (or at least bi-) sexuality, which is partly accepted in the ancient circles but, placed against modern conventions of masculinity, seems the polar opposite of his testosterone-leaking-out-of-the-ears aggression. (So much for contemporary enlightenment.) Again, the treatment is less trenchant than just confused -- Leto's Hephaistion never becomes a credible erotic alternative for Alexander, and their relationship, perpetually one soul-kiss away from guy-on-guy action, is never confronted head-on. (One wonders how much man-love ended up on the cutting-room floor during the project's journey to the screen.)
Swords and shields notwithstanding, Alexander fits neatly into Stone's gallery of specifically American misfits whose exalted tensions mirror their society's (the closest parallel is not Nixon but Jim Morrison in The Doors, who similarly has a place and an image in history to live up to and deal with). Already pegged as a farrago by more than one critic, the picture, unsatisfying and underwhelming, doesn't lack for the filmmaker's pungent visions, particularly in the Uccello-goes-digicam frenzy of the battles, and in sporadic flashes of mad grandeur studded throughout (Alexander, decked in a lion's skin, gazes into a vault of poisoned wine and sees his mother's Medusa head staring back at him). The friction between the genre's unthinking sweep and Stone's gonzo-obsessive impulses perversely lends Alexander a fascinatingly unstable quality that saner, safer blockbusters wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. People going in for a Gladiator rehash will leave bewildered -- Stone's specialty has always been opening wounds rather than healing them, and in this day and age it remains a particularly salutary one.