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Review: 'Alexander' far from great

By Paul Clinton

Colin Farrell plays Alexander the Great.
Coming Attractions
Colin Farrell
Oliver Stone

(CNN) -- Oliver Stone's sweeping epic, "Alexander," is a beautifully wrapped package, but open it up and there's nothing there.

This much ballyhooed and long-awaited historical drama starring Colin Farrell as one of the world's greatest warriors, Alexander the Great, could have been titled "Alexander the Dud."

When Stone, an Academy Award-winning writer and director, is good -- with films such as "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Platoon" -- he is very, very good.

But when he's bad, as he has been with movies such as "Nixon" and "Any Given Sunday," it's painfully obvious. To be fair, Stone's artistic aim is always extremely high, but when he misses, he misses big.

Of course, this 2,000-year-old story about a man who conquered 90 percent of the known world by the age of 25 is daunting in scope. Stone, along with screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, was faced with a truly Herculean task.

In an effort to fill in the many plot gaps they use Anthony Hopkins, playing Alexander's trusted general Ptolemy, as narrator. Forty years after Alexander's death, Ptolemy -- now the elderly Pharaoh of Egypt -- relates the life story of his king to a scribe at the legendary library in Alexandria.

Unfortunately, when you have voice-over and flashback carrying this much of the basic narrative, it usually means trouble with the script.

Sometimes it works -- "Stand by Me" is a case in point. But here, it takes away from the audience's attachment to the main character and fragments his emotional journey. The final product is a ponderous death march of a story that seemingly never ends.

Ptolemy begins his tale when Alexander is a young boy overly attached to his beautiful and manipulative mother, Queen Olympias, played by Angelina Jolie. He's constantly used as a pawn in an ongoing struggle between his mother and his father, King Philip II of Macedonia, played by Val Kilmer.

This kid has major mother issues -- Doctor Phil would have a field day -- and the embarrassingly clunky dialogue doesn't help. At one point, Olympias turns to Alexander and pouts, "What have I done to make you hate me so? Everything I've done, I've done for you!" This is the stuff of soap operas, not Greek tragedy. Both Jolie and Kilmer are woefully miscast -- throw in the trite dialogue and -- Houston, we have a problem.

One positive note: the young actor chosen to play Alexander during his teenage years, 13-year-old Connor Paolo, is a dead ringer for Farrell, and the only piece of casting that really works.

One battle sequence after another

Finally, Alexander grows up and begins conquering the world, but the movie doesn't improve. The unending battle scenes, while chaotic and bloody, have no point of view and it's impossible to know who is who. Eventually, you just stop caring. Again, you lose connection with your main character.

There has been much speculation as to how Stone would deal with Alexander's sexuality, and his love for his lifelong friend, Hephaistion, played by Jared Leto. For the most part Stone handles this issue very straightforwardly (pardon the pun). In the ancient Hellenic world, before the rise of Christianity, contemporary definitions regarding homosexuality, or bisexuality, were meaningless.

The two "love" scenes between Alexander and Hephaistion are strictly verbal and nothing physical occurs. This is probably for the best. Anything graphic would surely have made a great portion of the audience feel uncomfortable and thereby have taken them out of the moment. There are plenty of other mentions of the sexual attitudes of that time period to make the point.

Another problem is Farrell's hair. Sorry, I have to go there.

According to history books, Alexander the Great was a blond; Richard Burton dyed his locks for the 1956 production of the story. But Farrell's naturally dark hair was transformed into a cheap, glaring, bottle blond, while leaving the Irish actor's black caterpillar-like eyebrows their normal color.

This may be nitpicking -- but for me -- the jarring result is that Farrell's Alexander looks like a Babylonian hooker after a busy Saturday night. The bad dye job also greatly hinders this talented actor from ever achieving the enormous authority needed to carry off this gigantic role.

For the most part this film, while visually stunning, is really just one battle sequence after another. Many scenes, such as the march into Babylon, are breathtaking. The script, however, is totally pedestrian, the casting inept, and the results are disappointing.

I found myself desperately glancing at my watch more than once.

In the end, the only thing that kept me going was the blessed knowledge that Alexander died at the relatively young age of 32. Therefore, I assumed, the movie couldn't possibly go on forever.

Although it certainly felt that way at times.

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