3½ stars (out of 4)
Wild ambition and great achievement sometimes carry the seeds of their own destruction - a proposition that is both the central subject and dangerous stylistic temptation of Oliver Stone's vast, riveting, madly audacious movie biography "Alexander."
Stone's spectacular account of the life, victories and early death of the Macedonian soldier king - the staggering figure who won his first battles at 16, became monarch of Greece at 20, conqueror of most of the known world by 25 and, after his death at 32, an imperishable legend - is the sort of rash, all-out project you'd expect from the director of "JFK," "Born on the Fourth of July" or "Nixon." It's history set ablaze, livid with political intrigue, scandal and unbraked sexuality: the sort of deliberately over-the-top, over-rich, uninhibited moviemaking that more conservative audiences and critics love to hate.
Stone's "Alexander" is an incredibly lurid movie, an epic that portrays Alexander and his contemporaries (not without justification) as a gallery of heroes, monsters, gods and goddesses, often with feet of steaming clay. And it paints Alexander himself as a prodigy of battle and visionary of world order, undone by his own unstoppable quest, by the hellish fury of his mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie, looking vampirish and insatiable) and the seething corruption of his times.
The film has at its center a magnetic, super-physical, smart, sometimes over-packed portrayal of Alexander by Colin Farrell, in blond locks and oddly appropriate Irish brogue - catching the king's charisma and self-confidence but not always his mysterious, seemingly invincible inner drive. (Stone uses Farrell and other Irish and British actors to quickly convey the class division between the rougher-hewn Macedonians and the more cosmopolitan Greeks.)
Not surprisingly, the director of "JFK" and "Salvador" concentrates here on the political scandals that underlay Alexander's rise to power - most tellingly, a conspiracy theory slant on the assassination of Alexander's father, Philip (Val Kilmer, the Jim Morrison of Stone's "The Doors"). More surprisingly, he presents Alexander with greater sympathy than he lavishes on most political leaders: as an idealistic world-unifier who tried to meld his vast conquered empire together with cultural tolerance and enlightened policies but failed because of over-reaching.
That portrayal is intriguing and, for the movies, fresh. In fact, Alexander is a subject few previous filmmakers have tackled - Robert Rossen's somber 1956 movie bio with Richard Burton excepted. Watching this picture, you can see why. As Stone sweeps us through his subject's princely boyhood (with Connor Paolo as a compelling young Alexander) in a court seething with treachery and poison, as he unabashedly paints the king's homoerotic love for youthful companion Hephaistion (Jared Leto, in too much mascara), Alexander's fiery marriage to Eastern siren Roxane (Rosario Dawson) and that dizzying succession of military triumphs from Persia onward, his film almost seems to explode on screen.
Not even the smoky eloquence of Greek luminaries such as teacher Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and the film's wearily sagacious narrator, old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), can calm things down. It's as if a great psychological film spectacle such as David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" had abandoned all restraint, been stripped naked and fallen into hell.
Stone gives us an embarrassment of riches all the same, aided by a crack team that includes Peter Greenaway's designer Jan Roelfs and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros"). He demonstrates certain gifts, for richly detailed yet imaginative ancient history, we might not have guessed from this son of the '60s. Aided by historical adviser Robin Lane Fox (whose popular 1973 biography is worth a reading before or after you see the film), this movie is an impressive feat of reconstruction. Even if it often looks like the maddest of fantasies - especially when it swoops us into bacchanalian revels in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or cues a last staggering Indian elephant charge - the vision grabs us.
I think Stone wins his bet with history, but not without cost. Many will find the movie overwrought, oversexual or even ludicrous.
Alexander's bisexuality won't sit well with moral hard-liners. Devotees of the old Hollywood historical vision of a Cecil B. DeMille will certainly take violent offense.
Will the audience he needs follow Stone into his fever-dream vision of past-as-present and ancient history as grand, scandalous prologue? Perhaps not. Earlier this year, the very entertaining "Troy" won neither mammoth audiences nor widespread critical favor. And there's almost too much in this story to encompass, just as the world was finally too large for Alexander to win.
But even if it doesn't conquer its world, Stone's "Alexander" is worth the battle. Like "JFK" and "Fourth of July," it hot-wires history and politics into a wild, memorable, breathtaking ride.
Directed by Oliver Stone; written by Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis (historical adviser Robin Lane Fox); photographed by Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Tom Nordberg, Yann Herve, Alex Marquez; production designed by Jan Roelfs; visual effects supervised by John Scheele; music by Vangelis; produced by Thomas Schuhly, Jon Kilik, Iain Smith, Moritz Borman. A Warner Bros. release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:55. MPAA Rating: R. (for violence and some sexuality/nudity).
Alexander - Colin Farrell
Olympias - Angelina Jolie
Philip of Macedon - Val Kilmer
Hephaistion - Jared Leto
Roxane - Rosario Dawson
Old Ptolemy (Narrator) - Anthony Hopkins
Cassander - Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Young Alexander - Connor Paolo