Regarded as a monumental flop on its original release, Oliver Stone's Alexander arrives in an unprecedented third version on HD formats, after seeing two different versions on SD. Presented in its “Final Cut” will this revisitation of the film be great, or will it merely grate?
Sorry, I had to get that out of the way early. As for the film itself, Stone has added nearly 30 minutes of extra footage, as well as tinker with the running order, moving some events elsewhere in the film in order to tighten it up. The result is a film that is presented on two discs (in order to fulfil Stone's wish that the film be presented with an intermission), and runs over three and a half hours. Lets be clear about this - if you have already seen the film and hated it, this is not going to win you over. However, if you have previously avoided it due to it's reputation is this the version you should go for?
I'm sure the plot needs little revisiting here, but just in case you are not aware, the film follows the life of Alexander, a Greek who managed to conquer most of the known world 3 centuries before the birth of Christ. Crossing Asia, he commanded an empire that was unprecedented at the time. Alexander himself is regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of history. This is a story that is ripe for the telling.
However, perhaps the film is hampered by the scope of the tale it is trying to tell. Other modern epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven concentrate on just a short period in history but this film, by necessity, has to follow its subject over a large period of time. It is not about one battle, or one event - it covers the whole of Alexander's life.
We therefore see his formulative early years, being influenced by his mother, teachers, and his best friend Hephaistion - and follow him right through to his death. Even three and a half hours is not enough to tell this story completely, and the film is bound to suffer slightly as a result.
But this film is never as bad as its detractors will make out. The brickbats have been heard so often it seems that the film is known more by what the critics thought of it, than its own reputation. Colin Farrell's wig is stupid, Angelina Jolie is too young, the accents are rubbish, the performances are wooden and so on and so forth. I am not going to debunk every single one of these criticisms one by one, but what I will say is that this film, whilst flawed, is nowhere near as bad as it has been made out to be.
The first reason for this is the absolute gorgeous cinematography present in the film. The Director of Photography is Rodrigo Prieto, and he does a fantastic job of bringing Stone's vision to life. Whether sweeping across a truly breathtaking battlefield, or focussing on a truly intimate bedroom scene, each shot is lovingly framed, composed, and lit - really bringing the period to life. The sheer scope of Alexander's empire means that the action takes place over a large area - from Greece in the West, to the Himalayas and beyond. The scope is immense and you really do feel that the action takes place in the real locations. No dodgy soundstage work here.
Also, despite what people say, I do not have a problem with the acting in this film. Yes, Jolie plays her character in an over-the-top way, but this is how the character was. I feel that she does the part justice. The smaller roles are filled with well known and highly regarded actors, from Brian Blessed to Tim Piggott-Smith. But this was Colin Farrell's big shot at stardom. Did he take it?
Unfortunately, the answer is not quite. If you rewatch something like Gladiator, you can see what a part in an historical epic can do for an actor. I can't help feeling that Crowe was in a similar position career wise as Farrell was before each respective movie was made. Farrell simply does not nail his character as well as Crowe does with the role of Maximus.
Farrell is excellent in the more intimate scenes, and comes across as quite convincing when he is having to address a small group of generals or planning strategies. He is also excellent at the more sensitive side of Alexander, as demonstrated when he first enters Babylon and finds the Harem. Alexander was a complex character, capable of being sensitive and arrogant, driven and vulnerable - and all of these emotions Farrell portrays extremely well.
The problem comes when he has to motivate a large army before battle with rousing speeches. He simply does not quite have the charisma to carry this off. He doesn't seem like the kind of man who can enthuse so many men, and drive them to die for him if necessary. Of course, this flaw is quite vital in a film about Alexander's life, but in reality who else could have portrayed such a complex character, and done justice to him? His wig may look a little silly, and his performance may have this flaw, but on the whole I feel that he brings a lot to the character and generally succeeds in bringing his contradictions across to the audience.
We have already looked at Jolie's performance, and Kilmer as well (as Alexander's father) chews the scenery with relish. Again, his performance is over the top, but again his character is extroverted - and I feel he does an excellent job.
So, the cinematography is excellent, and the acting is above average. So far, the positives about this film are myriad. So what about Stone himself? We know he is one of the most talented directors working in cinema today, so surely his direction must be assured?
Unfortunately, again like Farrell's performance, Stone does extremely well, but perhaps falls slightly short of greatness. The main reason for this is that he seems to be slightly too close to his subject. He had long harboured the desire to make this film, and perhaps a few more judicious trims may have improved the general pacing of the movie. By this, I mean that there are certain scenes that are too long - almost as if Stone feels that they are far more important to the plot than they actually are.
That said, in this “Final Cut” the pacing issues are certainly less obvious that the original cut - even if the film itself is longer. The structure of the film makes more sense, with several key scenes moved to a completely different time in the film. The result is a more coherent narrative which is easier to follow.
The other major addition to this “Final Cut” is that the major battle scene is much more beefed up. In the previous version, the build up had been breathtaking; with the camera flying across a seemingly endless army facing up to the enemy, but once the fight occurred it seemed slightly anaemic. Not in this version, however. I am not an advocate of gratuitous gore, but in this cut the gore has been ramped up to the extent where the battle scenes are wince inducing. Limbs are hacked off, blood flies; decapitated heads shoot through the air. It is much more visceral and affects the viewer much more in this version.
The sex scenes are beefed up as well, with Rosario Dawson showing much more flesh than before - and even Farrell showing everything (to keep the women entertained, I guess).
However, the flaws in the movie are still present as well. Perhaps the major problem with the film is that Stone, despite his obsession with telling the true story of Alexander, pulls back from a key part of Alexander's life - his love for Hephaistion (Jared Leto). I cannot say that I would have relished seeing two men rolling around in bed together, but the fact that it is merely hinted at rather than shown means that the end result is that this tricky subject is rather glossed over. Even so, key portions of the American audience turned against the film because it even dared to mention this side of his character. They need to read their history.
A more fatal flaw is that Alexander's motives and legacy are never truly explored. Why does he conquer so many lands? Why does he drive himself and his army on so far? We get superficial discussions about his motives, but never does the film truly get under the surface and really explore the legacy of Alexander.
And there, in a nutshell, is probably Alexander's greatest flaw. It may be three and a half hours long - but it has certainly over reached itself in the story it is trying to tell. It never really gets under the skin of the character and reveals the man underneath. However, in trying to do so Oliver Stone has delivered some breathtaking cinema. Certainly nowhere near as bad as critics have made out, the film bravely attempts to go beyond the scope of most historical dramas. That it doesn't quite succeed in its aim should not detract from the many successes that we do have here. If you have not seen Stone's magnificent folly, then you really need to do yourself a favour and check it out. Do not be swayed by the critics but make up your own mind. Embrace the positives whilst accepting the negatives. You may well be surprised by how good the film is.