'Alexander': The Ultimate Cut
Warner Home Video
Much like Alexander the Great himself, Oliver Stone will go to the ends of the earth to fix his epic about the Macedonian conqueror. The new “Ultimate Cut” is his third reworking of 2004’s “Alexander,” following 2007’s unfortunately named “The Final Cut.” He could conceivably chip away at it forever. The man is an unconquerable subject, even if — or especially if — you’re an ambitious, wild, reckless filmmaker prone to fever dream logic. Stone is at his best when he’s aiming for the windmills; two of his best films — “JFK” and “The Doors,” made, insanely, in the same year — are big fat lies that nevertheless get at elemental truths about America’s psychic collapse in the 1960s.
How odd, then, that “Alexander”’s original theatrical cut is, compared to his other work, pretty close to sane. It plods through a massive tale, trying badly not to stumble over all the footage knocked out in the grueling post-production process. Stone’s solution, though, is a curious one: He actually makes it messier. This is a crazier, more unwieldy film that tries to create the illusion of infinite scope through a lack of focus. Both the “Final” and “Ultimate” cuts — which, all told, aren’t too different — muck up the streamlined, linear original to jump around, and not always sensibly.
Much like in “Nixon,” we’re constantly being thrown back or forwards in time — not for any clear reason, mind you. Stone frontloads Alexander’s (Colin Farrell) first big, bloody victory before hopping back to his childhood. He never accesses Alexander’s mind; he comes off as somewhat down-to-earth, grappling with the idea of him as a myth whose adventures are scrawled on walls. But Stone never develops the idea and he remains unknowable and, in Farrell's performance, only somewhat commanding. As such,the structure feels like it was pieced together at random, just to keep the film from being dull. It can still be dull; there are endless chatty scenes, but the chatter tends to be expository and empty, not the mad, edge-of-your-seat, does-this-even-add-up? blabbering of “JFK.”
And yet “Alexander,” in any cut, remains weirdly magnetic, possibly moreso than if Stone had gotten a handle on it. It’s fascinatingly incomplete and forever unsure of what it wants to be. It strives for an honest, modern look at a noted bisexual, whose great love wasn’t his feral warrior queen (Rosario Dawson) but his right-hand man, played by an eyeliner-doused Jared Leto. But it’s still old school hesitant. The latter two cuts show Alexander in some heavy dude petting, but that’s as far as this pre-“Brokeback Mountain” monstrosity will go. (One can only imagine what Baz Luhrmann, who had to abandon his dueling project, to star Leonardo DiCaprio, had in store.)
Other times it’s dopey. Stone buys into an old school, Psych 101 reading on his hero as one rebelling against awful parents. Still, he does go full-tilt boogie with it. Mom (Angelina Jolie, vamping with an inexplicable vampiric accent) is a lecherous snake enthusiast, while dad (Stone’s one-time Jim Morrison, Val Kilmer, in a great, omnivorous turn) is a one-eyed, hard-partying, beer gutted rapist. Jolie never ages, though that’s less of a problem than her being not only younger than the actor playing her son, but six days younger.
It’s also, visually speaking, clean — or clean-ish. In the ’90s Stone developed a hyper cutting style to match his hyper thinking process. His thoughts dart hither and thither, latching onto ideas without checking them for sense or truth. So too did his images, which collided into eachother, changed stock and filters, burning the retinas just as they overloaded the mind. “Alexander” was comparatively plain, especially compared to “Any Given Sunday,” which seemed to take its style as far as it could go. A late battle doused in crimson filters aside, this is pretty but always easy on the eyes. In fact, one of the film’s major perks is that Stone filmed some of the most coherent battle scenes in cinema history. Instead of bodies hacking away mindlessly at eachother, “Alexander”’s skirmishes darts around to show the various working parts that make up the gory whole.
Cleanliness may be antithetical to Stone’s work, and indeed his subsequent films — “World Trade Center,” “W.” and “Savages” — have seemed tame, less vital, even neutered. “Alexander” isn’t controlled, even when it’s Stone cranking out expensive, boilerplate “epic” imagery while Anthony Hopkins’ Ptolemy drearily sing-song narrates over it. Like Alexander himself, it’s a walking contradiction. Where he wanted to unite the world by killing most of it, Stone’s film is both generic and insane, a film with few highs and lots of problems that nevertheless sticks in the mind even more than it would were it perfect.
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