After a big first couple of days, Alexander is going to be one of the more notorious box-office duds of 2004.

That seems unlikely prospect, given its seeming promise of epic grapples in foreign lands led by a warrior played by the pretty Colin Farrell, sired from the pretty Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer.

Well, 25 minutes of action are parsed out through the 173-minute running time (half of it a disappointingly incoherent swirl of blood, sand and weapons). Farrell’s bleached-blond locks resemble a community theater He-Man. And Jolie and Kilmer sport patchy European accents, Jolie particularly sounding as if she studied a lot of Natasha Fatale footage from Rocky and Bullwinkle.

And there isn’t as much of a headache-inducing overindulgence as in Oliver Stone films past (Natural Born Killers), but there are some awful choices here. The camera tilts at odd angles as Alexander revels in one of his many foreign-land conquests. Turning the film pink after a climactic battle moment is a laughably mad artistic decision. And there’s a reason Vangelis hasn’t scored many films since the 1980s — the electronic stuff sounds like a bad Mannheim Steamroller CD.

So if so much goes wrong in Alexander, what, pray tell, could possibly draw two-and-a-half stars? It’s if you’re looking to find what Stone brings to the table in his best work, as he does here.

Not content with just another swords-and-sandals movie, Stone revisits his keen view into what makes young, talented men live fast and die young, whether they’re soldiers, stockbrokers, rock gods or conquerors of the known world, as in this tale.

Farrell plays the title character, a Macedonian leader who had, by 331 B.C., conquered 90 percent of the known world. Not bad for a 25-year-old with a mother and father who baited him to their ways of thinking at intense cross-purposes to one another.

From this, Stone creates an intriguing thematic idea, one hammered home almost solely through his filmmaking force given that none of the performances rise above the passable.

Because the comforts of home were a foreign concept for Alexander, that’s why he kept searching, pressing on even when his vast armies were in danger of being wiped out. Political power deals and parental deception prevented it from ever feeling like the safe haven it did to the legions of soldiers who mutinously questioned his drive to continue.

There are no big speeches to this regard, but Stone’s sharply written script (co-authored with Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) keeps it at the story’s center.

The only time Stone falters with this idea is at the end, where he gives it up for the sake of lionization at the hands of Anthony Hopkins, waddling about a cheap-looking set in bad old-man makeup as an aged Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s top lieutenants now writing his leader’s history.

Of course, it’s impossible to argue against Alexander’s accomplishments, but it’s even more compelling to ultimately see his quest as an empty-calorie one — a great man who nevertheless died without really establishing his own identity apart from the tyrannies of his mother and father.

This story conceit is all far more interesting than the much-ballyhooed characterization of Alexander’s bisexuality. It amounts, really, to little more than an overly theatrical kiss, Farrell and Jared Leto (as Alexander’s fellow soldier and lover, Hephaestion) making mooneyes at each other and a one-liner tossed off by Hopkins in the film’s prologue. Its presence is probably enough to turn off the alpha-male looking solely for an action fix, going back again to the box-office thoughts.

Unlike his subjects of choice, Stone is a director who, by just making it to older age, is choosing to fade away. Like Stone’s two films since Nixon, Alexander is intensely problematic, but unlike U-Turn and Any Given Sunday, it’s at least compellingly watchable.