Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Oliver Stone seems at the end of his rope, but then he always seems at the end of his rope. Here is a man who needs sleep. He has flown in from Paris, he's jet-lagged, he's talking in that rapid-fire way we use when we're so tired we don't have the strength to talk slowly. He is talking about "Alexander" (opening Wednesday), his 173-minute epic about "the most amazing life in history," and he describes him: "Already, at 26, he had the political leadership of the world." Switching thoughts: "We used to think young people could rule the world. Today, young people are a demographic, a market."
There is so much that is wrong, so much to fight against. "If we had to do things the American PG way, then we were screwed. This had to be an R picture. If you work in Hollywood, you have to get past the studio development committees. The thousands of demands. The previews where they dumb it down for the audience. The system wears you down. It's a monster -- demanding, uncompromising. Marty Scorsese and Spike Lee have been through hell ..."
The lesson being that the German financial backers of "Alexander" allowed the director to make his epic his way, as a film that juxtaposed violent battle scenes with scarcely less violent sex scenes between Alexander (Colin Farrell) and his barbarian bride Roxane (Rosario Dawson) -- and also encompassed Alexander's love for a man, Hephaistion (Jared Leto). There were rumors that Stone would show Alexander and Hephaistion making love, although in the event they just hug a lot, and kiss once. There is a passionate nude scene involving Roxane, despite the distinct possibility that Alexander prefers his lifelong friend to the Asian woman he marries to consolidate his empire.
"When it came to love and friendship," Stone said, "I think Alexander felt more with a man. A woman was for bearing sons. And Roxane bore him no children for more than three years. She is one of the least-covered, least-known characters in history. If I could talk to Alexander, I'd ask him why he married her. But the Greeks did have a regard for women: Six of the 12 gods are women, after all. Marrying her pissed off all of his men, but he didn't care, he was making a point."
Actually, five of the Greek gods are women, but never mind: There is also Alexander's closeness to his mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie). "I think maybe he married his mother in Roxane," Stone speculated. You might think Jolie is too young to play a king’s wife and a conqueror’s mother, but let it be observed they married early in those days, and that in any event Olympias denies that her husband, Philip of Macedonia, is Alexander’s father. Her son's father, she insists, is Zeus.
"Did she really believe Zeus was the father?" I asked Stone. "I mean he's a god, so did he, uh -- well, what did he do?"
"It wasn't until 1630 that the Dutch discovered ovaries," Stone explains. While I'm writing that down, he explains that in early days there was more mystery about conception: "In her mind, Zeus was the father."
Stone said he fell under Alexander's spell as a child, reading the biography of him in a Children's Classics series. "This was the golden boy of all history. I've been trying to make the movie for a long time. In 1991 with Val Kilmer, in 1996 with Tom Cruise. Then Colin Farrell came along, and he was perfect. He was a tough, Tyrone Power, barstool-looking boy from Dublin. We made him a blond, which was perfect for him, and he became Alexander."
How did Farrell feel about the homosexual side of the character?
"Alexander wanted to find the end of the world. Aristotle said the Eastern Sea was the end of the world, but Alexander went there, and the world did not end. So he kept on going, conquering everything in his path, year after year. For him, sexuality was also part of knowing the end of the world. And conquering the fear of death, that was knowing the end of the world. Colin Farrell understood that.
"Alexander was the first king in history ever to be seen weeping over his troops. He knew their names, he knew their families. He lost as few troops as possible, and he never left enemies behind. If an insurrection broke out behind him, he went back and cleaned it up. When the Greeks rose up, he wiped out Thebes. Wiped it out. It was a terrible thing to do, but the other Greek city-states got the message, and so he saved lives. He went for the head. Kill the king, and your enemy folds. Alexander would have gone after Osama bin Laden. I'm sorry, but Kerry was right. It all worked for Alexander, until he was overwhelmed by India."
All of this came tumbling out as urgent news. Stone sat on a sofa in the Four Seasons hotel and spoke as if it was important to get it all said immediately. It was hot in the room, he said. A window was opened. He asked for a cup of coffee. He apologized for losing his train of thought because of jet lag. He seemed as if he might have been overwhelmed by India, too.
Stone filmed in countries on four continents, he said: Morocco, Thailand, England, America.
"If this had been a Hollywood production, everything would have had to be done digitally. We had real soldiers."
There are shots, I said, where it does look real, as the troops march through a mountain pass, and not like all the little digital ants in "Troy" and "Lord of the Rings."
"We used some digital," he said. "I've been using digital for years, before you ever heard of it, in 'JFK,' 'The Doors,' 'Nixon' ... but the shots you're talking about, most of them, many of them, were real."
Stone said Alexander didn't destroy the peoples he conquered. "He included their customs, their clothes, their languages; he wanted to assemble the entire world under one leader. He married an Oriental woman to show how he included them, instead of a Greek princess. He had a mobile empire, that moved with him. The Romans used his empire as the basis for their empire. And then the Vandals, the Huns, the Crusades ... by 2050, they say Europe will have a Muslim majority."
Was it a struggle to get "Alexander" made at its longer running time?
"We got it done. I don't believe in this business of chopping up a film and then releasing a 'director's cut' on DVD. What you see should be the director's cut. This is the director's cut. If you can spend four hours killing Bill, Alexander deserves some space."