We've all heard the tale: In 1836 a motley group of brave Texan soldiers aided by American legend Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) defended The Alamo to their bloody deaths at the hands of Mexican General Santa Anna's well-trained army. That's pretty much the same ground covered by the film so don't expect any surprises. What you can expect early on is some fairly convoluted political back story centering on aspiring nation-builder Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) plenty of soap opera-quality bickering between leading characters Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and knife aficionado Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) and a good amount of pompous preening on the part of Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria). Like Glory The Alamo takes its time (about 90 minutes) to lead up to the pivotal battle using the rest of the time to introduce major characters and conflicts; unlike Edward Zwick's masterful Civil War drama Hancock's epic wanna-be loses the audience's attention in the process.
Poor Dennis Quaid -- all of the good subtle work he's put in over the last couple of years in smaller movies like The Rookie (also directed by Hancock) and Far From Heaven could well be swept from filmgoers' minds in an instant if enough of them remember The Alamo instead. As Houston one of Texas' almost-mythic heroes he blusters orates and generally overacts his way into becoming a living cartoon. Meanwhile Wilson Patric and Thornton are all given one-note characters: Col. Travis is an uptight by-the-book goody-two-shoes (until naturally he gets his one big chance to redeem himself) Bowie is a hard-drinkin' hard-livin' man's man and Crockett is the consummate good ol' boy relying on his aw-shucks demeanor to make friends -- and disguise the true depth of his pithy insights -- wherever he goes. (Thornton does what he can with Crockett but subtlety is lost in this movie.) On the other side of the trenches Echevarria's Santa Anna might as well be Dr. Evil for all of the sense he makes or the respect he earns from his lieutenants. Screenwriters Hancock Stephen Gaghan (an Oscar winner for Traffic) and Leslie Bohem must have taken the general's "Napoleon of the West" nickname literally when it came time to craft his petulant volatile character.
Hancock -- who stepped up to helm The Alamo after original director Ron Howard wisely bowed out -- is a newbie in the realm of historical epics and it shows. For all the time and money that obviously went into the film's costumes sets and effects (the re-created fort is wholly convincing and some of the nighttime battle sequences are pretty impressive) too little was spent developing characters that were equally realistic. Just because people like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie have become larger than life in the American pop mythology doesn't mean they didn't have their faults (as presented in the movie Bowie's resolutely dissolute lifestyle is almost as trite as the rest of his character). And just because these martyred heroes were so colorful doesn't mean that watching them slouch around a dry dusty fort for an hour before anything really happens can be considered entertainment--even the best true stories can use a little help from the editing fairy now and then. Carter Burwell's heavy-handed Braveheart-meets-Glory score (Crockett's catchy fiddling notwithstanding) just underscores the fact that the movie is trying to bully you into feeling certain ways at certain times; when the music swells you gear up for something exciting only to be left hanging again and again. Looks like the suits at Touchstone Pictures knew what they were doing when they delayed The Alamo's release date from Oscar-bait December to dead-zone April.