When Oscar-winning writer/director Oliver Stone first unleashed his epic Alexander the Great biopic back in 2004, critics launched a war of words and audiences retreated from the box office battle lines. In the aftermath of its disastrous theatrical release, Alexander was re-tooled for its 2005 home entertainment debut by Stone, who trimmed 8 minutes for a special “Director’s Cut” DVD, whose packaging promised a “faster-paced, more action packed” film. Although the “Director’s Cut” sold moderately well, certain critics pummeled Stone once again, this time for further de-gaying an already largely de-gayed narrative about history’s most famous bisexual conqueror.
Determined to placate critics once and for all, Stone re-edited the film a third time in 2007 and, rather than subtracting footage, added in a total of 40 extra minutes, which included more literal sword fighting and implied naked sword fighting. The resulting release, Alexander Revisited, was supposed to be the final word on the film. Seven years later, however, and we have a fourth cut of the film, Alexander: The Ultimate Cut, which shortens Revisited by seven minutes. The question is, has Stone finally made Alexander great? Hit the jump for my Alexander: The Ultimate Cut Blu-ray review.
I think the answer lies in how much you consider the initial “Theatrical Cut” in any way great…or, at least, good-ish. I, for one, remember watching the film in theaters after all the critical bloodshed and enjoying it, albeit with diminished expectations. Sure, the film felt overly long at certain points and truncated at others – and Colin Farrell’s dyed blond locks were an epic disaster of their own – but there was enough battlefield spectacle and bedroom intrigue on screen to keep me amused. Thankfully, Warner has included this original “Theatrical Cut” in the 10th Anniversary Alexander: The Ultimate Cut box set.
With my memory of the “Theatrical Cut”’s content a bit blurrier than my moderately positive reaction to it, I packed a bag lunch – make it two – and sat down to watch Stone’s 207-minute Ultimate Cut, the centerpiece of this lavish new digi-book box set, which also includes a small, lovely little hardback book called “The Art of Alexander,” reprints of production memos between Stone and his cast and crew, a short printed essay defending the movie by Classics professor Ivana Petrovic, and a redemption code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy (Ultimate Cut only).
As the film began, I was surprised to find myself thrust immediately into battle; the Battle of Gaugamela, to be specific. In this extended war sequence, Stone introduces Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell) as a young man whose strong leadership skills and cunning military mind lead the Macedonians to victory over Persia. The sequence also shows off Stone’s bravura action filmmaking, which certainly rivals anything in Braveheart or Gladiator. But something felt a bit unfamiliar about this sequence…or unfamiliar about its placement at the head of the movie.
Doing a little research, I discovered that, for his 2007 “Final Cut,” and its slightly shorter new sibling, “The Ultimate Cut,” Stone decided to break up the chronological re-telling of Alexander’s life as featured in the original “Theatrical Cut.” Alexander’s narrative now shifts backward and forward in time, alternating between scenes of Alexander conquering the world and the childhood events that shaped his psychology. I guess if critics complain about your original cut being too slow, why not start with a big bang or “in media res” (in the middle of things) as ancient storytellers like Homer did with “The Odyssey” and Virgil with “The Aeneid.” Those epics have certainly stood the test of time.
Following the Battle of Gaugamela, the film snakes back in time to Alexander’s childhood, where a young Colin Farrell look-alike (complete with similarly odd blond dye job) portrays Alexander as a son torn between earning the approval of his hard-partying, one-eyed father, King Philip II (played by Stone’s former Jim Morrison, The Doors star Val Kilmer) and remaining loyal to his power-hungry mother, Olympias (played by former Hollywood bad girl-turned-global Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina Jolie). When Alexander witnesses his drunken father’s near-rape of Olympias, the latter emerges the more sympathetic of the two larger-than-life parental figures. But Olympias’ insistence that Alexander’s real father is Zeus doesn’t suggest she’s playing with a full deck of tarot cards, either. So, whose lead should Alexander follow?
It turns out he has no choice but to follow his mother’s vengeful whims. Convinced Alexander will lose the throne to Philip’s mistress’s new infant son, Olympias advises her son to “kill or be killed.” Refusing to betray his father, Alexander is nevertheless a witness to his father’s violent murder in an outdoor sports arena. Alexander immediately suspects his mother and Stone, the conspiracy theory-happy director of JFK and Nixon, leaves little doubt who’s responsible…while Jolie practically winks at the camera.
From this point on, Alexander assumes the role of King of Macedonia and sets out to conquer most of the known western and eastern worlds – including Afghanistan and India – while having animalistic sex with his pretty wife Roxana (Rosario Dawson) and batting eyes at Jared Leto’s prettier Hephaestion. The film climaxes with the lavish Battle of Hydaspes, in which Alexander and his men fight against King Porus’ army along the banks of the Hydaspes River (modern-day Pakistan). Amidst the clashing swords and Porus’ roaring elephant cavalry, Alexander is struck with an arrow. He manages to survive but his grief over Hephaestion’s death, whom he suspects the jealous Roxana has poisoned – a paranoia likely inspired by his own mother’s double-crossings – soon causes him to become weak and perish.
Those are the basic events that happen over the course – make that five-course meal – of Stone’s supersize historical biopic. Most of them, especially the battle sequences, are certainly a marvel to behold, which is no surprise considering the fact that Stone earned his name directing Vietnam War classics Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, both of which feature intensely visceral scenes of military combat. Operating on a much grander scale, Stone still manages to infuse these scenes with his patented battlefield intensity.
The film also thrives during its sexier bedroom moments, which include Farrell’s erotically charged entanglement with Rosario Dawson’s feral Roxana, and his face-offs with his mother, Olympias. I know the latter claim sounds a little icky, but Jolie is only a year older than Farrell and watching these two good-looking, (former) wild child stars feud on screen – faces inches apart – has an undeniable, if unintentional, heat.
Where the film lacks necessary heat is in the supposedly significant relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion. Jared Leto may have used his wide-eyed beauty to haunting effect in Dallas Buyers Club, but here he’s a wan, sidebar pretty boy with nothing significant to say or do, even if that’s more than he said or did in the original “Theatrical Cut.” Perhaps if Stone had made the film in the post-Brokeback Mountain era, he might have known how to properly infuse a gay relationship with real passion and pathos. Without feeling a true sense of connection with or empathy for this relationship, the film’s final scenes fall a bit flat.
Other than Leto, however, the remainder of the supporting cast is eminently watchable, especially Jolie as the deliciously vampy Queen Olympias, Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy, the film’s comforting narrator, and Christopher Plummer as Aristotle, Alexander’s wizened teacher. Casting aside, the film’s biggest weakness is really one of a narrative nature and, by narrative, I don’t mean structure, since Stone can move around the individual pieces of this film ad infinitum and still not end up with something truly great.
The reason for this became apparent while watching the new “Ultimate Cut” documentary “The Fight Against Time,” in which one of the producers talks about how much easier it was to get funding for this sword and sandal epic in the aftermath of Gladiator’s success. But what Gladiator had, and Alexander sorely lacks, is a relatable, underdog hero like Russell Crowe’s Maximus. The Alexander of Alexander is more like Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured prince in Gladiator: a young man born into privilege and haunted by ruling class family dysfunction and neurosis. At the end of the day, most people just aren’t going to find as much to root for in this kind of character, regardless of sexual orientation. And therein lies the Great challenge Stone failed to conquer.
The “Ultimate Cut” disc includes “Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone’s Alexander,” an extended production diary that looks at the making of the film through the eyes of the director’s son, Sean Stone. This is the 10th Anniversary release’s most interesting bonus feature because it offers an intimate view at both the film’s production and the dynamic between Stone and son, which amusingly reflects the powerful father/aspirant son dynamic between Philip and Alexander in the movie.
Also new is the “Ultimate Cut” Director Commentary. Well, new-ish. This audio track blends fresh remarks from Stone on this new “Cut” with his existing commentary for Alexander: Revisited. Stone sounds a little different on each but it’s certainly a detailed and informative listening experience – and it was all new to me.
The final new bonus feature is the mini-doc “The Real Alexander and the World He Made,” in which Stone and several historians narrate the major events of Alexander the Great’s life over clips from the film. This piece feels designed to simply validate the film’s authenticity and, after ten minutes, you’ll be tempted to just watch the actual film.
Bonus features ported over from the “Theatrical Cut” DVD include: Stone’s original “Theatrical Cut” commentary; a shortened version of Sean Stone’s “Fight Against Time” divided into three chapters: “Resurrecting Alexander,” “Perfect Is the Enemy of Good,” and “The Death of Alexander;” “Vangelis Scores Alexander,” a five-minute featurette that includes an interview with the Academy Award® winning composer; and trailers.
The original “Theatrical Cut” looks stunning in its blu-ray upgrade, while the “Ultimate Cut” presents the added footage in seamless fashion in a 2:40:1, 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. The film is a richly textured tapestry and the high definition flatters the film’s colorful settings and characters.
In terms of sound, this “10th Anniversary Edition” upgrades both the “Theatrical” and “Ultimate” cuts to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.. The film’s soundtrack, featuring music by Academy Award®-winning composer Vangelis (Chariots of Fire), is appropriately epic and one of the film’s key strengths.
Oliver Stone’s Alexander may never be great, but this new “Ultimate Cut” Edition provides epic amounts of entertainment value and bonus material.
Alexander’s original “Theatrical Cut” is rated R for violence and some sexuality/nudity and has a run time of 175 minutes (2 hours, 55 minutes).
The “Ultimate Cut” The “Ultimate Cut” is being released Unrated and has a run time of 206 minutes (3 hours, 26 minutes).