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Fortune favors the bold.
I'm not sure if it was post-Iraq invasion ennui, or a return to the classics in the wake of 9/11, but two of the biggest films of 2004 were based on Greek stories, Troy and Alexander. It's hard not to read them both in light of America's military situation at the time, as both films are about the complexity of war, its justifications, and its aftermath. Perhaps because of that both, films underperformed at the U.S. box office. Troy was not a hit critically, but it had the decency to make double its budget overseas. Alexander, though, got a kicking and then stayed down, as every critic who hated Oliver Stone came out of the woodwork to punish him for his first truly inept-seeming film. Stone took the criticism to heart, crafting both a Director's Cut and a Final Cut for video release in the years after the film's theatrical run. Now it's 10 years later, and we've got what's being called The Ultimate Cut. It's an improvement and shows that either extreme reaction to the film—love or hate—is probably a bit misplaced when dealing with a flawed film by a brilliant director.
Facts of the Case
Alexander takes on basically the entire life of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell, In Bruges). Though he has a tortured relationship with his dead father Philip (Val Kilmer, Willow) and a complex one with his mother (Angelina Jolie, Maleficent), he wants to conquer the known world. Along the way he makes many sacrifices before achieving his famous dream.
Oliver Stone claims that the post-production period on Alexander was rushed. Given the epic scope of the film and the state of digital effects at the time, I'm not surprised that something had to give. In the case of Alexander, that was the editing. The theatrical cut is a largely chronological affair, giving us an overview of the life of Alexander. In this configuration, the film is dull, plodding, and feels overlong without also feeling full of detail. Still, there's no denying that Stone picked a great cast, and his eye for action is surprisingly strong. Critics and audiences alike hated this version, and initially Stone came out with a Director's Cut. This fleshed things out a bit, but was mostly an excuse to add more sex and violence. With a couple of years to contemplate Stone released Final Cut, which got rid of the chronological structure and instead worked towards a more nuanced understanding of Alexander and his life. Most critics that I've read thought this was a vast improvement, but still a flawed motion picture.
That Final Cut seems to be the basis for this Ultimate version, which runs 206 minutes. With 10 years distance, Stone doesn't seem to be trying so hard to prove himself, so he pares down a bit of the fluff from the Final Cut while keeping its basic outlines. The film's narrative is non-linear, letting Alexander's internal logic guide the story rather than chronology. That means we travel back and forth between the epic Battle of Gaugamela and then to Alexander's childhood, see his political marriage, his love of fellow soldier Hephaistion, and ultimate fate.
A couple of things work about this cut of Alexander. The first is the obvious attention to detail and the epic scope of the film. Stone has obviously directed some action before (Platoon and Natural Born Killers come to mind) but very few expected the director of JFK and Any Given Sunday to give himself over to an historical epic focused on a military leader. Despite his relative inexperience, Stone does an amazing job staging the film's battles, especially for the early days of post-The Lord of the Rings digital effects. There's a significant attention to getting costumes and setting right—usually straight dramas are known for costumes, but fans of clothing can find a lot to enjoy here. Stone is also not willing to shy away from just how bloody and prolonged Alexander's campaigns were.
The other way that Alexander works is as an actors' showcase. Colin Farrell, like many attractive men, was still in the throes of wanting to be taken seriously as an actor in 2004. Playing the lead role in an epic historical action/drama seemed like a great path to legitimacy. It would have worked, too, if the film hadn't flopped. But that's not Farrell's fault. He takes the character's mythic status and humanizes him, even if he's ultimately lost in a film that's a bit too big. The rest of the actors match Farrell in intensity. Val Kilmer plays Philip of Macedon not with the stodgy weight of most dramatic attempts at classical stories, but more like a contemporary alcoholic trying to live through his son, jealous of his achievements. Angelina Jolie is amazing as Alexander's mother, with Jolie utilizing her exotic beauty to portray a bewitching influence on Alexander's life. Jared Leto is perfectly cast as the too-pretty companion with whom Alexander is in love, and Rosario Dawson gets to play the ÃŽsavageÃ® wife that Alexander takes for political alliance. Though they're dwarfed by a narrative larger than they can fill, the actors all put in performances that are interesting.
This Blu-ray set is also surprisingly good considering how much the proverbial vaults have been raided over the last several releases. It's a two-disc set, with the Ultimate Cut on one disc and the theatrical version on the other. Both share an excellent 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. They show a bit of softness, probably because of the effects work, but overall are really pretty stunning. Close-ups show a lot of excellent detail, and colors are perfectly saturated throughout. Black levels are deep and consistent, and no significant compression artifacts show up. The film also gets an excellent DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. Dialogue stays clean and clear in the front, while the surrounds get a workout during battle sequences.
Extras start with a new commentary on the Ultimate Cut that finds Oliver Stone discussing everything you'd expect, from working with the actors to his decisions about this particular cut. He's a bit too enthusiastic about the film, but overall it's an informative listen. Also on the first disc is a new documentary about Alexander that runs 30 minutes or so, giving us some more background on the history via interviews with historians. Then, we get a feature-length documentary on the making of the film, shot by Stone's son that gives us a lot of behind the scenes footage with a personal touch. On the second disc, we get another commentary, this time with Stone and historian Robin Lane Fox. This commentary focuses more on the historical aspects of the film, and Stone is even more willing to discuss his intentions with the theatrical cut. We also get a set of previously-available featurettes that double up on some of the documentary information but nonetheless provide some more insight into the making of the theatrical cut. Finally, we get a pair of trailers on the second disc.
The two discs are housed in a keepcase that slides into a cardboard sleeve with a book featuring production photos and excerpts from letters Stone sent to his cast discussing the film. It gives the set a handsome, finished feeling. There is also an UltraViolet digital copy of the film included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No matter how much tinkering Oliver Stone does, Alexander will never be the equal of his best work. The major difficulty is that there's just too much material. Stone never quite figured out how to condense Alexander's story into a dramatically meaningful unit. Instead, we get a bunch of scenes that give a strong sense of the scope of his life, but ones that never quite add up to a complete picture (however dissatisfying that picture might have been). This Ultimate Cut cleans things up and makes them shiny, but can't paper over the fact that we either don't get enough detail (like a 12 or more hour miniseries might offer) or we get too much. In either case Alexander doesn't feel like a complete film, even if it offers some pleasures.
With 10 years worth of hindsight and Alexander (Blu-ray) The Ultimate Cut, it's easy to see that Oliver Stone doesn't have a masterpiece on his hands. It's equally easy to see, however, that the critics who thoroughly trashed the film missed something as well. This Ultimate Cut is the best available version for sure, and likely to be the best that can be done with the material. The new cut and new extras make this an attractive option for fans and skeptic alike to experience the film again.
Not perfect, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Cut
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