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‘Alexander’ is an epic disappointment

Colin Farrell stars in this long-winded soldier's story. By John Hartl

There’s a wonderfully ironic moment in the 1959 Biblical epic, “Ben-Hur,” when the hero’s childhood friend, Messala, comes home from years of Roman-soldiering to brag about the cities he’s razed and turned to ashes.

Ben-Hur’s sister and mother are aghast but politely silent. Suddenly Messala realizes he’s said something amiss, but he can’t guess what could have offended them. Deciding that they’re not that interested, he changes the subject. “I’m boring you with soldiers’ stories,” he says.

Oliver Stone’s three-hour historical epic, “Alexander,” depends a lot on soldiers’ stories that will either bore or offend. Or both. Produced at a cost of $155 million, it’s essentially one long battle scene after another — and that includes the operatic court intrigues that pit Alexander the Great’s scheming mother (Angelina Jolie) against his drunken father (Val Kilmer).

All that shouting and bloodshed get old over the course of three hours, even if Alexander’s old friend Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) keeps insisting that Alexander wasn’t really a tyrant but a Macedonian visionary who wanted to unite the known B.C. world. Ptolemy’s lengthy monologues are supposed to provide perspective, but they come off as windy and annoying, a lazy way to avoid dramatizing the material.

It may just be that Alexander’s story is inherently dull. Shakespeare tackled Caesar and Cleopatra, but he stayed away from Alexander. Robert Rossen’s 1956 epic, “Alexander the Great,” with Richard Burton, was just as cold and episodic as Stone’s new version starring Colin Farrell. Only Mary Renault’s trilogy of Alexander novels, including “The Persian Boy” (1972), have succeeded in making dramatic sense of the story.

Renault’s books reportedly had an influence on Stone’s film, perhaps in its handling of Alexander’s bisexuality. But the screenplay, attributed to Stone and two other writers, can be terribly timid about that as well. Alexander’s passion for his boyhood pal Hephaistion (Jared Leto) is stated verbally (Alexander is said to have been defeated only by Hephaistion’s thighs), but visually the relationship is established mostly by hearty hugs and wistful looks.

Still, there’s more going on between these two than there is between Alexander and his feral wife (Rosario Dawson) or between Alexander and his nearly identity-less soldiers. Aside from an inspirational pre-battle speech, in which Alexander singles out different soldiers by name and does all but brand them “a band of brothers,” it’s impossible to tell what any of them mean to him. As a result, the battle scenes, for all their graphic impalings and beheadings, don’t have much emotional impact.

Farrell does an adequate job as Alexander, but he seems miscast, too boyish and vulnerable (and well-coifed) to hynotize these men into becoming an undefeatable army. Jolie, playing with her pet snakes and warning Alexander that his father will betray him, may be over the top, but she commands attention. Vangelis’ insipid score does nothing to help the actors or shape the narrative.

Stone has been adamant that he doesn’t mean to address current foreign-policy decisions, yet he does have Alexander’s teacher, Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), warn that the Middle East has a way of “swallowing up” those who invade it. The rest of the movie, for all of its vague meanderings, can’t help but validate that prediction.