All hail Oliver Stone, whose Alexander is a shock: not a campy disaster. And believe me, when you’ve got Angelina Jolie playing Alexander the Great’s mother as a snake-loving harpy, when you’ve cast Val Kilmer as a one-eyed nightmare of a daddy-king, when you’ve dusted off Chariots of Fire’s Vangelis for your conquering-the-world soundtrack music, you are courting disaster, brother.
But Stone rises to his own challenge. He stages Alexander’s numerous bloody, profitable coups with a scary fury that never boils over into Natural Born Killers psycho-territory. And in Colin Farrell, he has an Alexander not only of finely dyed blond hair (a far more convincing do than Richard Burton’s daffodil-colored bob in the 1956 thudder Alexander the Great) but also of finely calibrated emotions. It’s really difficult to emote while bellowing inspirational commands to what look like thousands of massed Macedonian warriors. It’s just as difficult to be an Alexander who can gaze into the eye-liner-rimmed baby-brown eyes of his lifelong friend, Hephaestion (Jared Leto), and not go all weak in the toga-exposing knees (even the mighty Claire Danes couldn’t resist when Leto was Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life).
Stone handles Alexander’s well-documented bisexuality without the kind of macho contempt you might expect from the popular image of this ballsy director. Indeed, Stone does what other battle-smitten directors from Sam Fuller to John Milius haven’t been able to do: convey the crackle of homoeroticism of men in groups with a casual frankness.
As for the hetero sex, Rosario Dawson, as Alexander’s first wife, Roxane, a Persian wiggler with eyes that droop allure, has a great scene in which she puts a knife to Alexander’s throat shortly before they have sex. Dawson’s not much of an actor, but when she gets up on the bed, glares at her man (he’s been doing some incorrigible boy-flirting), and begins to pant huskily, muskily, I’d give her a special Oscar—this woman really knows how to expel breath to maximum effect.
I’m leaving it to the academics among you to decide whether this is a historically accurate Alexander (not that even the most strict constructionist of the period is going to be objective after seeing Roxane pant). Anthony Hopkins is the movie’s narrator-by-default, playing Ptolemy in the framing device—the sage dictates the tale of Alexander’s exploits to a sweaty parchment-scrivener as they stand under a blazing Greek sun (poor red-domed Hopkins looks as though he is patting his robes for some SPF 35 sunblock).
This periodic narration keeps us pretty much on track chronologically, but really, you knew going in that Alexander the Great was all about the looting and the nation-building. A young buck, dead by age 32 in 323 B.C., he was filled with messianic fervor to spread Greek culture and amass power while staying as far away as possible from Mom and Dad at home. After we hear Jolie’s Olympias make some extravagant demands for power-sharing, Farrell makes the most of a good line: “It’s a high rent she charges,” he says wearily, “for nine months in the womb.”
And I haven’t even mentioned the elephants. Near the end of the film, in India, Alexander and his now-bedraggled crew are set upon by invadees mounted on elephants, animals that scare the bejesus out of the Greeks and their horses. At first, all you hear in the dense Indian forest are thundering, camera-rattling thumps—it’s a little Jurassic Park–y—but when the elephants emerge and charge, prepare to be awestruck.
I doubt there’s much of an audience out there for a two-and-a-half-hours-plus ancient-Greek epic these days. But Stone has done an honorable, honest job here; he obviously commands loyalty among his former troops, since Kilmer (The Doors) and Hopkins (Nixon) took a flier on a very risky project. And Stone didn’t lose that edge of just-around- the-next-frame looniness we love him for: Alexander goes to take a gulp of wine, for instance, and floating in his chalice is a shimmering image of Jolie as a snake-haired Medusa-mom. As one of the few movies around not pushing state-of-the-art animation or Jude Law, Alexander is a damn good date movie, especially if the person you’re dating has either an inexorable will-to-power or enjoys panting.