Friday, April 9, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Unlike the Texas battle, this 'Alamo' is forgettable

Seattle Times movie critic

An unlikely hero emerges in John Lee Hancock's "The Alamo," in the person of Billy Bob Thornton, who single-handedly almost saves the movie from dreariness. As frontiersman Davy Crockett (though he prefers David), Thornton gives the movie a much-needed spark; he makes all his lines funny, even though they're not. "We're going to need more men," he says, seeing the massive Mexican army advancing on the Alamo, and something about his flat-voiced, laconic delivery — or maybe his face, etched with squiggly squint lines and looking ever-so-slightly perplexed, like he's pondering a difficult math problem — gives it a comic spin.

It's yet another terrific, oddball character turn for Thornton's résumé, and it's heaven-sent: "The Alamo," otherwise, suffers from good intentions but tepid results.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"The Alamo," with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarría, Jordi Mollá. Directed by John Lee Hancock, from a screenplay by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, and Hancock. 135 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sustained, intense battle sequences. Several theaters.

Blame the screenplay, which spent years in development (three writers are credited; others, such as John Sayles, are known to have worked on it) and has a definite made-by-committee feel to it. Hancock, except for some occasional sputters (mostly from Thornton), never succeeds in bringing history to life. The film plods along, like those Mexican soldiers, arriving at its destination in serviceable yet unmemorable fashion.

The familiar story of the doomed Texas settlement is here centered on three men, all members of the Alamo troops: William Travis (Patrick Wilson), the young commanding officer; James Bowie (Jason Patric), a popular colonel suffering from a terminal disease; and Crockett, who is dismayed to find that he has arrived at the Alamo just in time for trouble. ("I understood the fighting was over," he says, the grin freezing on his suddenly immobile face. "Ain't it?")

Though Dennis Quaid, Hancock's star in "The Rookie," has top billing, he's really barely in the movie as Gen. Sam Houston, racking up just enough screen time to show off his muttonchop sideburns and bookend the story.

Patric does his manly best with an oddly written character; Bowie seems to alternate between energetically whipping out his huge namesake knife and coughing into a blood-stained handkerchief like a frontier Camille.

Wilson, so good in HBO's "Angels in America," is a tad miscast; though Travis is described as a dandy, Wilson looks almost too refined here, striding around in his custom-made blue coat like a stern peacock among drab hens. The two men are scripted as polar opposites who come to an understanding on Bowie's sickbed (he gets multiple death scenes, surely any actor's dream) — it may be history, but it's too meticulous to be believable.

Hancock's movie is rich in color and period detail (there's a gorgeous shot of the Mexican army, their red-and-gold uniforms glowing through fields of gray-white snow), and it's never unwatchable. But you get the sense that it's been jiggered with a few too many times, and you just keep wanting more of Crockett, a man both shaped and amused by his own myth (he wears a coonskin cap, he says, because "that feller in the play" wears one).

The film ends on an elegant shot of the Alamo as the evening light fades, and on one last peek at Thornton's leathered face as he gazes into the waning sun, as if he's been mysteriously resurrected — or as if the filmmakers realized, too late, that he was the movie.

Moira Macdonald:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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