The Alamo (review)

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Remember… Something

Now, my travels in Texas are limited to two stopovers in Dallas-Forth Worth Airport barely long enough to run the 18 miles to the other side of the airport to catch my connecting flight. But I’d bet good money anyway that there’s a statue — maybe in Houston, maybe in San Antonio — of Sam Houston on a rearing horse with his sword drawn and held high in the air, looking all inspiring and ready for battle and just about to yell “Remember the Alamo!”
Cuz that moment, ready-made for the history books and the statue sculptors, is right here in The Alamo, General Dennis Quaid sporting scary muttonchops and a cravat and looking like he knows he’s an Iconic Figure at an Historic Moment. And it sorta stands out like an East Texas junebug on an armadillo — I have no idea what that means; insert your own colorful Texas aphorism — because the film is really, really frantic to get you riled up at this point. Because it knows, I guess, that it’s totally failed to get you riled up before that, and now it’s two hours into the film, and if it doesn’t get your pulse going now, it’s never gonna happen.

And it doesn’t happen now, either. Can’t. It’s a crazy hopeless cause, just like the crazy hopeless cause of the, like, three guys holed up in that crumbling church who held off hoards of rampaging Mexicans and Urak-Hai and whatever. If the big hopeless crazy mad patriotic battle didn’t do it, no amount of horse-rearing and sword-flailing and Dennis Quaid grimacing madly and manly is gonna do it at this point.

Maybe it’s a Texas thing. Like I said, I don’t know from Texas, except for Lyle Lovett and the Austin Lounge Lizards. Maybe if you’ve grown up hearing whatever stories it is Texans tell one another when they’re not telling us Yankees not to mess with them, it’s more involving. There just didn’t seem to be a lot of context in which to place everything. I’ve heard of Sam Houston, of course — he invented the Astrodome, right? — as well as Dennis Quaid (Cold Creek Manor, Far from Heaven), and I’ve heard of Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) — the knife guy, not the Ziggy Stardust guy — and I’ve heard of Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton: Bad Santa, Love Actually), but I never knew they all knew each other. They’re kinda like a League of Extraordinary Frontier Gentlemen, the way they’re all thrown in here together. It’s like it if weren’t true — and apparently it is — you mightn’t really believe it.

Except for Lt. Col. William Barrett Travis (Patrick Wilson), the commander of the Alamo whom I’d never heard of before — he’s kind of a boring prig, even though we’re supposed to believe that he’s a whoring son of a dog, or something. And that’s, conversely, the other problem: It’s not like this whole gang of extraordinary frontier gentlemen personalities are all that interesting. For a movie about a bunch of larger-than-life characters doing Iconic Historic Things, The Alamo feels really small. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a drama or an action movie and it doesn’t seem to realize that it is actually possible to combine the two, and so instead it’s not enough of anything. It’s flat and dull and uninspiring, and as handsome as it is to look at, it’s almost hard to stay awake through most of it.

It’s too bad, cuz in an alternate universe, there’s a rousing version of this film that an alternate me is raving over, and through some kind of advanced transdimensional wormhole technology, Billy Bob Thornton manages to exist in both that universe and this one. He’s amazing here — and to be honest, it’s probably not just him; the script, by director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie), Leslie Bohem (Taken), and Stephen Gaghan (Abandon, Traffic), is most at ease with his character and with exploring the real man behind the Davy Crockett legend. But Thornton juggles all the contradictions of Crockett — now he’s a bit of coward, now he’s a bit of a hero; now he’s a cocky SOB, now he’s touchingly vulnerable — with a delicacy that makes Crockett real and expansive and subtle all at the same time.

But Hancock flubs it, and the whole film would be a cartoon if only it had the energy to be ridiculous. You can just about imagine that Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarría: Die Another Day), the self-styled “Napoleon of the West,” the big bad Mexican general, is having orgies and drinking the blood of soft white babies as soon as he walks offscreen, and so you’re disappointed that the movie didn’t go whole hog and just let itself be that absurd. And then, on the other hand, there’s that Spanish guy with the striking blue eyes who always gets stuck playing terrorists or drug dealers because, you know, that’s how these things go, and he doesn’t have much to do here and his character doesn’t even get a name until the very end of the film — Juan Seguin — at which point you realize he was probably someone historically important and how could the film just ignore him like that? The actor who plays him, Jordi Mollà, does even more than Thornton with even less to work with, and you can’t help but suspect that given the chance to do something beyond the likes of Bad Boys II, he’ll blow our socks off, and it’s too bad this isn’t the movie that lets him do that.

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