The Alamo (2004)

"Unbearable"

The Alamo (2004) Review


A soldier's life has been famously characterized by hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. Well, The Alamo manages to capture half that story.

The Alamo isn't a patriotic, heart-swelling epic. It's a dull, rotten, dreary, excruciatingly-long miniseries which sadly reduces men of historical significance to dirtbags fighting over dirt. Yawn. Ugh. Another $100 million that could have saved the Texas school system.

With a Christmas 2003 release delayed four months for edits and re-edits, The Alamo enters theaters during the no-man's-land of mid-spring saddled with what some call bad buzz. Every malicious word is deserved.

The story of the Alamo is well known to children of Texas, or "Texians," as they were known back in the day (and previously made as a movie by John Wayne in 1960). Long-ass story short, a ragtag band of settlers in the nascent Republic of Texas - including famous names like Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) and Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) - holed themselves up in a poorly-fortified stronghold against a regrouped Mexican army many times its size. The Mexicans culminated a fortnight-long siege with a massacre of everyone inside the Alamo before falling to Sam Houston's (Dennis Quaid) forces further down the road.

Note the "fortnight-long siege" part. The waiting for the Mexicans to do something besides lob the odd exploding cannonball comprises the bulk of the story. It goes on and on and on. And the payoff - a dullsville night-time "battle" primarily composed of men firing rifles off-screen followed by melodramatic death scenes - is about as rewarding as cauliflower for dessert.

Director John Lee Hancock (fantastic name), himself a graduate of the aforementioned Texas school system, imbues his villain - General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarría) - with all the subtlety of a James Bond supervillain. Far from being an imposing military mind, Santa Ana genocidally mows down prisoners, deflowers virgins, and sips coffee out of fine china. He's a one-dimensional monster who tells his lieutenants to sacrifice their own soldiers like "so many chickens."

Meanwhile, Hancock's heroes, while not quite so evil, barely inspire pathos. Mostly, they're surly drunks or anonymous militiamen, or anonymous, surly, drunken militiamen. Bowie, who is suffering from something that looks like TB, gets sicker as the siege progresses, and Patric spends the entire second act reenacting his drug withdrawal scene from Rush, but without Jennifer Jason Leigh to wipe his sweaty, wooden head. With such minimal character development, there's barely a reason to watch him die in bed for an hour.

The subplots - Sam Houston's redemption, an old slave convincing his younger counterpart to jump ship, a power struggle between Bowie and the commanding colonel - are granted barely a few lines to evolve between speeches by the Texians and more scheming by Santa Ana. At some moments, the writing and acting reach such dreadful depths, you half expect to see Ben Affleck romancing a lesbian.

The Alamo is only Hancock's second major feature as director. Unlike producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, for whom this is just another Tuesday at the office, Hancock's drama-free pacing and anticlimactic battle scenes illustrate his struggle to manage scale. His first picture - Disney's G-rated sports hit The Rookie - was by all accounts a "successful small movie," and it's a bit sad to see this wannabe-epic get away from him. At some point, you have to wish Howard grabbed the reins from Hancock, and said, "Thank you. I'll take this from here."

Perhaps the only saving grace in this stinking mess is Thornton, who blessed Christmas audiences with his brilliant title performance in Bad Santa. Thornton owns every scene as the legendary "king of the wild frontier," but he's merely a bonbon floating in an open sewer of a movie.

Remember The Alamo? It's about as memorable as a sunny springtime Saturday wasted at the DMV.

The DVD includes deleted scenes and three featurettes about the making of the film and its history.

You'll have my mutton chops when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers.



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