2 stars (out of 4)
OK! OK! We'll remember the darned Alamo!
Although Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) shouts those all-too-familiar words in John Lee Hancock's "The Alamo," the movie never makes the case why we should.
Despite the story's resonance to history buffs and Texas boosters in particular, this latest rendition of the 1836 battle between the Mexican army and outnumbered Texans for a San Antonio mission-turned-fort plays like your standard-issue modern war movie.
No wonder Disney/Touchstone moved "The Alamo" from its end-of-the-year schedule. It's got mixed-ethnicity brotherhood, battles and drunken commanders a la "The Last Samurai"; a portrait of harsh Southwestern frontier life a la "The Missing"; a flutey war-is-hell score played over lingering shots of corpses a la "Cold Mountain"; and a climactic few-against-the-many siege a la "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (and "The Two Towers" for that matter).
Hancock, whose previous film was the more pleasingly corny "The Rookie," also shows a touch of Steven Spielberg circa 1977. You know all of those shots in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in which masses of people stare together in awe? The crowds of "The Alamo" do a lot of that.
The utter conventionality of the filmmaking makes the movie's claims to historical accuracy laughable. Sure, Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) doesn't go up in a valiant ball of flames like John Wayne's version of him in 1960's "The Alamo," but Hancock, reworking a script also credited to Leslie Bohem ("Dante's Peak") and Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic"), gives the character a defiant send-off that's every bit as Hollywood.
(It's not a spoiler to note that all 189 or so of the Alamo's defenders are killed, because: 1. The opening scene has a messenger announcing, "They're all deaadddd! The Alamo has fallen!" and 2. That's what you're supposed to remember, silly.)
It's also probably not historically accurate that on the morning after a cannon attack, everyone in the besieged fort awakens and gazes around at exactly the same time to a soundtrack of loud bird chirping. Despite the filmmakers' efforts to build an accurate Alamo replica and to debunk the cartoony myths of Wayne's "Alamo," the movie still plays like Disneyfied history. That may be exactly what the company had in mind when it handed the PG-13 reins to Hancock after nixing Ron Howard's R-rated take on the material.
The movie also has been cut from a reported three-hour length to 137 minutes. Supposedly the main victim was Quaid's Sam Houston, which is just as well; he plays the alcoholic general with a perpetual eye-bulging glare that seems to say either "You just said somethin' 'bout my mama!" or "I haven't been to the lavatory in three days."
Houston's scenes bookend the movie, while the center is shared by Thornton's Crockett, played with an appealing, myth-debunking looseness; Patrick Wilson's Alamo-commanding Col. William Travis; and Jason Patric's knife-fighting, hard-drinking Jim Bowie, a Travis rival. There's not a bad performance in the bunch.
Wilson's bland exterior camouflages a character who grows increasingly shaded and steely, and Patric low-keys Bowie while conveying a deep-burning sorrow and danger. But when Bowie starts coughing up blood about halfway through, he winds up in bed, and the movie pretty much joins him.
No characters beyond the principals come to life, and the progression to the final battle, instead of growing in tension, feels like a compulsory march to the inevitable, punctuated by lofty speeches and forced lyricism (such as Crockett's violin accompaniment to the Mexican army's music).
"The Alamo" is a professionally made movie, just not an essential one. There's little fresh or provocative here, and if you can't be shaken by this story, why bother? When it comes to great cinematic battles, you're more likely to remember the Orcs.
Directed by John Lee Hancock; written by Hancock, Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan; photographed by Dean Semler; edited by Eric L. Beason; production designed by Michael Corenblith; music by Carter Burwell; produced by Mark Johnson, Ron Howard. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, April 9. Running time: 2:17. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sustained intense battle sequences).
Sam Houston - Dennis Quaid
Davy Crockett - Billy Bob Thornton
Jim Bowie - Jason Patric
William Travis - Patrick Wilson
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna - Emilio Echevarria
Juan Seguin - Jordi Molla