Archive for Thursday, April 8, 2004

The Alamo’ can’t defend itself from being hokey

(PG-13) **

April 8, 2004

The sets are grand, the costumes are perfect, the history of the
situation is clearly explained.

But despite the attention to all the cosmetic details, there's not a
frame of "The Alamo" where viewers aren't aware they're watching a
movie.

Director and co-writer John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie") crafts a film
so enamored with its own mythology that it borders on becoming a
parody of the 1836 battle/massacre that helped Texas gain its
independence. The project looks authentic but feels fake.

It's a shame because the actual history surrounding the Alamo is
intriguing, powerful stuff. And although a lot of the movie is
routine - it's siege centerpiece is no different thematically than
"The Return of the King" - audiences have a pretty easy time relating
to this material. It's hard not to root for a small group of patriots
defending themselves from a much larger force.

This epic event would be more palatable if it weren't approached like
an EPIC EVENT. A sweeping camera moves in to a closeup of an actor as
he surveys the enemy. His face grimaces from the brunt of his noble
responsibility. Inspirational music chimes in.

If Hancock could show the heavens opening up and angels descending,
he probably would have.

Also at the core of what causes the movie to seem so hokey is its
portrayal of the main characters. There's the by-the-books William
Travis, the loose cannon Jim Bowie, the zany-but-lovable Davy
Crockett. This isn't a group of historical figures as much as it is a
sitcom cast: "Everybody Loves the Alamo."

Even with these broad profiles, the most surprisingly believable
character is the larger-than-life Crockett. Played by
larger-than-life actor Billy Bob Thornton, the legendary adventurer
works in this context precisely because he doesn't believe his own
hype. Crockett is shown as amused by his alligator-wrestling,
bear-killing reputation - yet he's also a little apprehensive of it,
as if he can never quite live up to expectations.

There's a great little throwaway image during Crockett's eventual
execution (one interpretation of his fate) in which he sees a Mexican
foe wearing a coonskin cap, implying that even the enemy can be
counted among his fan base. In one of the film's few moments of
subtlety, he dismisses the sight with a resigned laugh.

Thornton may be the best American actor working today. Part of his
strength is that he - like Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman or Sean
Penn - can give terrific performances in forgettable movies. This
latest effort helps hone that ability.

"The Alamo" doesn't end with the 189 "Texians" dying at the hands of
General Antonio López de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarr-a) and his
2,500-strong army. Like "Pearl Harbor," the rah-rah film is not
comfortable concluding with an American defeat. Whereas the World War
II epic added a final act about Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid on
Tokyo, "The Alamo" follows Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) in his
cat-and-mouse game with Santa Anna's troops.

In its own way, this is the most interesting part of the film, even
though Quaid gives a stiff performance and Santa Anna is depicted
more as a James Bond villain than a political leader. It's here,
however, that some actual military strategies are deliberated upon.
It's certainly satisfying seeing the Napoleonic-type Santa Anna
suffering through his own Waterloo.

Otherwise, the movie would have been nothing but watching people
waiting around to die. Although the way filmmaker Hancock addresses
the material, one half expects Travis, Bowie, Crockett and the rest
of the defenders to rise from their graves after three days.

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