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Movie review

Alexander ** 1/2

STARRING: Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie

DIRECTOR: Oliver Stone

RUNNING TIME: 176 minutes

Rated R for violence and some nudity and sexuality. Now playing at area theaters
two and a half stars

Poor Alexander the Great. He fights all those battles, crushing the mighty Persian Empire and venturing into India -- and he still has his mother carping at him.

"I haven't heard from you in so long," Mom, played by a snake-wrapped Angelina Jolie, whines via messenger. "How can you neglect your mother, who made you what you are?"

"Alexander" is like the emperor himself -- powerful in some ways but flawed in others.

It boasts terrific battle scenes, the kind only Oliver Stone can craft, with horses and elephants rearing, knives flashing, arrows tumbling from the sky, close-ups of skill and agony and panoramic shots of hordes of warriors surging forward.

The post-battle scenes can bring tears to your eyes. Stone doesn't shrink from the ugliness of war, and even amid all the heroics, we're reminded of the price that was paid.

And the pre-battle scenes are the best of all. Warlords before combat have always been the stuff of legend -- think of Shakespeare's "Henry V," and the stirring call to arms that primes soldiers for the Battle of Agincourt. Stone's movie gives us Alexander, astride his wild, noble black steed, greeting soldiers personally and urging them toward valor.

"Nestor, I remember how you threw the javelin at the last Games. May you show the same heart today."

"Leander, I still mourn your brother, who died so nobly. Fight for him today."

If any part of this movie winds up being widely quoted, it'll be: "Blood makes the rain fall. Blood makes the grass grow."

Who doesn't love the sight of a great Biblical-era epic, with hundreds of horses, boots and plumed helmets? That's the thrill of "Alexander."

Val Kilmer is immensely entertaining as Alexander's one-eyed, hard-livin' father. Christopher Plummer makes an aristocratic Aristotle, and "Masterpiece Theatre" legend Brian Blessed (Augustus in "I, Claudius") has a cameo as wrestling coach to the young (and annoying, I have to say) Alexander.

Considering all this talent, it's unfortunate that the movie's so flawed.

Making any kind of historical movie, let alone a war epic, is a tough task these days. Audiences can't be counted on anymore to know the first thing about history. Stop a kid on Elmwood and ask him if he knows who Alexander the Great was. Ask him where Macedonia is. No one knows.

That means everything has to be explained - which accounts for a lot of the extravagant length of this film. Anthony Hopkins plays an old friend of Alexander who has long outlived him and presides over a series of flashbacks. He points out on a mosaic map where Alexander's armies are moving. He explains who different people are. He more or less narrates the film. You have to pay attention to every word Hopkins says, which isn't easy, because his surroundings are so sumptuous that you want to study them instead.

Honest, it looks like the ultimate resort. There are statues, fountains, pets, gently swaying palm trees and a scribe who follows Hopkins around, taking down his every word.

With lines like "It was then that Alexander made one of his most mysterious decisions," the movie can't quite escape that 1950s bio-pic quality.

Ultimately, it's rather shallow. Colin Farrell, with his hair dyed blond, seems miscast as Alexander. He looks weak, finicky and wan. It's impossible to guess what's in his head, what motivates him to try to conquer the world (aside from the obvious, that the task gets him away from that mother of his).

He marries a Babylonian dancer - but there, again, his motives are murky. It doesn't help that the queen (Rosario Dawson) acts the part with a dislikable sneer, or that the two mate like a couple of rhinoceroses. You can't stir up any empathy here.

The scenes that suggest a gay relationship between Alexander and a close buddy are undertaken gingerly, and they're equally chilly. The friend looks as if he's out of an '80s hair band. Again, woeful miscasting.

Modern politically correct touches can make the viewer giggle. The movie makes a big deal about Alexander being the perfect conqueror; he respects the kings he defeats, and says he will make them allies. (He cares about a global consensus!) He is anything but ethnocentric, gazing dreamily over Babylon and musing: "Imagine the minds that built this."

At one point, he proclaims: "We recognize the women who have shared this long, hard road with us."

Well, at least Alexander the Great lived so long ago. After all these centuries, his empire can't strike back.