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MOVIE REVIEW

Stone's 'Alexander' turns out not so great

As hero, Farrell can't stand up to unruly plot

The new Oliver Stone movie, ''Alexander," is full of brilliant highlights, and they're all in Colin Farrell's hair.

His coif begins a mere flaxen mop, full of life (and sand), as he smolders through the young-adult years of Alexander the Great. Nearly three hours (and 13 years) later, it's gone wild, turned into the mane of both a warrior and certain Camaro owners.

In those salon-treated locks, you can see the movie that ''Alexander" is -- long and unruly -- and the one that it longs to be: layered and unforgettable.

A historical epic is what a director makes when he wants to matter again: a globe-trotting sword-and-sandal spectacular that has everything from small nations of extras to bellicose pachyderms on the payroll.

Lord knows, Stone spent enough of his life to make this one happen -- decades, by his count.

Now that ''Alexander" is finally here, the best there is to say is that it's better than ''Troy."

The movie's most assured moments are the wars, but those could have been filmed by anyone. War was personal and terrifying to Stone in ''Platoon" and ''Born on the Fourth of July," but it's often generic in ''Alexander." If we've seen one sequence in which anonymous soldiers are impaled by zooming arrows, I'm afraid we've seen them all.

A wise old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictates Alexander's life to us. Regally robed, shuffling, speaking with a scratchy voice, Hopkins is the movie's Yoda.

In his youth, Ptolemy was one of Alexander's soldiers and advisers, and he tells how a series of assassinations made Alexander king at 19. By the time he died at 32, in 323 BC, Alexander had expanded his empire from the Mediterranean to the Middle East to India. (Alexandrias pop up everywhere on the map, like parking lots or Starbucks.)

Stone and fellow screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis cover all the bases, taking liberties with both ancient history and the life of his nation-plundering Macedonian general. The film's lessons could be slipped inside a fortune cookie. (''Never," for instance, ''confuse feelings with duties," Alexander is told.) The combat sequences are grueling. The photography is buttery. The betrayals are many, the hard-core loyalists few, the tan lines ubiquitous, and the hero himself gay. I think.

Some of the trouble with ''Alexander" is that Stone has Farrell's ambitious conqueror caught up in so much intrigue on the battlefield and in the boudoir that the director doesn't seem to know what to make of him. Farrell, for his part, makes a serviceable icon. He's fiery and gentle, and, above all, physically and emotionally athletic. But Alexander is pulled in so many directions that both Farrell's performance and the character are stretched thin.

Alexander amassed many allies, even more acquaintances, a few friends, and, according to this movie, only one true love. His name is Hephaistion, and, as played by the distressingly passive Jared Leto, it's hard to tell whether he's made of flesh or styrofoam. But in squishy conversations that amount to Alexander's pledging his eternal devotion to his boyhood chum and fellow warrior, we're meant to be certain that the king is crazy about this guy.

Alexander may give his heart to Hephaistion, but Stone doesn't seem comfortable allowing the friends to become lovers. Alexander does bed the dancing Persian eunuch Bagoas (Francisco Bosch), which feels like a consolation prize. Our king can have sex with a man -- sorry, ''man" -- as long as it's not the one he loves. The nervous handling of the important relationship lays an absurd emotional dead spot over the picture's overblown finale.

Somewhere near the halfway point, Alexander finally takes a bride, the comely Persian Roxane (Rosario Dawson). It's a decision that appalls his fellow Macedonians (politically speaking, he's throwing away his legacy) and wreaks havoc on his peace of mind. She's jealous of Hephaistion, which seems fair with the underwhelming Dawson in the part: Why can't she be the only mannequin in Alexander's life?

After years of marriage, their failure to spawn an heir to the kingdom leaves her bitter and vindictive. But Stone has no interest in the soap opera on the movie's surface or the melodrama just below. The ingredients for camp are all over the place, but the director is determined to take his material seriously.

That's a Herculean challenge as you watch Angelina Jolie slither through the movie as Alexander's scorned mother, Olympias. She programs him from birth to succeed and outdo his father, King Philip (Val Kilmer). Dad supplies counter-programming, informing his son (played in boyhood by Connor Paolo) to ''beware of women. They're more dangerous than men."

And where Kilmer is a drunken riot, Jolie is plenty dangerous. Her Greco-Gabor accent alone could kill. But while she is the movie's scapegoat, she is also the only person in ''Alexander" about whom Stone seems to have unequivocal feelings: The lady is diabolical. Leaving no analogy unused, she even turns up as Medusa. That's reductive and unfair, but at least she stands for something.

It's harder to know what to make of the incongruous political allegory the filmmakers intend. Alexander is a man who can't stop conquering. He's indifferent to his weary troops' pleas to return to Macedonia, and the folks he's conquered are resentful. The reason, according to the movie: He wants a longer resum than his father's.

In building a great global empire, Alexander turns megalomaniacal, imperialist, and unheeding. If this is all starting to sound a little too Bushy for comfort, that appears to be what Stone wants.

But Stone himself calls to mind fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry in his own lack of clarity about war. Is Stone for or against it? Suffering aside, the combat sequences have an almost pornographic pull.

Like his libidinous hero, the director tries to have it both ways. As a result, ''Alexander" may be the first of its kind: a sword-and-flip-flop movie.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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