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Despite awful buzz and poor opening-weekend sales, 'The Alamo' is worth remembering

The Alamo has stumbled down a rough road to your local theater. At first, it was to be a bloody re-enactment of the legendary 1836 battle, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe. When the studio balked at the budget and Howard's R-rated intentions, director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) took the reins, promising to deliver PG-13 material.

A 2003 release was scrapped after test audiences declared the film supremely shitty. (Touchstone Pictures claimed the postponement was due to an overcrowded release schedule, but Internet buzz and chat rooms will tell you otherwise.) It staggered into theaters Easter weekend, receiving a critical drubbing and getting its butt kicked by Jesus when The Passion of the Christ re-claimed the box office top.

While I won't go so far as to proclaim the film a completely successful enterprise, I will go on to state that The Alamo is much, much better than expected. The characters portrayed here have some nice depth, thanks to great performances by Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett and rabble-rousing Jason Patric as Jim Bowie. As for the actual battle, it is expertly staged and heartbreaking to watch.

Hancock takes his time getting to the inevitable massacre. We meet Lt. Colonel William Travis (Patrick Wilson), a man who gets little respect from his fellow military men. One of his bigger enemies is the bitter Colonel Jim Bowie, who doesn't hesitate to challenge Travis' perceived control of the Alamo with a show-of-hands vote. Travis loses, and they agree to share control, then go through a series of ups and downs in their relationship, leading up to the battle climax.

While Wilson and Patric are exceptional, it is Billy Bob Thornton who amazes as Crockett. A former congressman who went to Texas looking for land, Crockett isn't portrayed here as a cardboard-cutout, fearless hero. Thornton's Crockett is brave, but he is also conflicted and worried. When he shows up at the Alamo wearing his coonskin hat, he honestly believes that any fighting with Mexican General Santa Anna has concluded. When he learns that the situation is just the opposite, and that Santa Anna plans to vanquish the Alamo and take no prisoners, he picks a spot and plans to defend it.

There is something about the humanity that Thornton brings across in his interpretation of Crockett that is more heroic than any TV incarnation or novelty-song portrayal of the man. Thornton's final scene, in which he offers to accept Santa Anna's surrender when there are multiple guns trained at his head, is a stunner. I'd put Thornton's work here alongside his performances in Sling Blade and The Man Who Wasn't There.

Knowing full well that every American and "Texian" (Texas was not yet a state) who tried to defend the Alamo would die in a massacre, I still found myself wishing that General Sam Houston (portrayed by Dennis Quaid in major gruff mode) would change his mind and commit his troops to helping out at the Alamo. As it turned out, Houston would defeat Santa Anna a short time later, and let him live in exchange for the Texas territory.

The Alamo isn't all blood and guts. Hancock and company go for something more than Texas rah-rah, and they achieve it. It's a shame that people seem to be staying away in droves from this one, perhaps influenced by all the bad press. If you remain convinced that this one is not worth your time at the theater, make plans in the future to take this one in at home, and see just how good an actor Thornton really is. You will be pleasantly surprised.

The Alamo
Rated NR

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