As if to get the bad news out of the way first, The Alamo opens on the aftermath of the battle, with corpses strewn throughout the besieged mission. For the next two hours, the film takes viewers through a credible, if truncated, account of the fight, including events immediately before and after the battle. For much of the time, it's a desultory tour through period-movie hell, complete with carefully aged costumes and cement-like chunks of exposition. Dogged but uninspired, The Alamo never achieves the mythic grandeur it aspires to. Coming on the heels of similar large-scale battle pictures, it will have an uphill climb at the box office.

Originally a Catholic mission in San Antonio, the Alamo became strategically crucial because of its cannons, prized by both General Antonio Lžpez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarr"a) and 'Texians,' who under Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) were asserting their independence from Mexico.

In 1836, Houston sends his friend Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) to the Alamo to retrieve the cannons and destroy the mission. But William Travis (Patrick Wilson), a lieutenant colonel in the militia, is determined to establish his unit there. Unfortunately, the fort is indefensible. When Santa Anna arrives with 4,000 troops, surrender is the only option.

Travis, not previously known for bravery, refuses to give up the mission. The arrival of real-life folk hero Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) gives some hope to the men, but without reinforcements, outnumbered 20-to-one, odds are no one will survive.

Originally planned for Ron Howard (who went on to helm The Missing instead), The Alamo is an unlikely sophomore project for director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie). He handles the logistics of battle fairly well, plays reasonable attention to period detail, and hits most of the expected points in the story. But the film fudges the politics surrounding the siege, turns Santa Anna into a preening, hiss-worthy villain instead of a plausible character, and is hampered on almost all sides by a lack of star power.

Patric gives a sullen, one-note performance as the mortally ill Bowie, while Quaid is wholly unbelievable as a gargle-voiced Sam Houston. Thornton adds an anachronistic irony to Davy Crockett's celebrity, but also emphasizes his remorse over the past, especially during a fireside monologue about an Indian massacre. Another standout is Jordi Mollà, whose haunted eyes add an unexpected dimension to his part as the wily Juan Seguin.

While the screenplay offers one structural surprise, there's no escaping the downbeat thrust of the story, which at times threatens to stretch into an eternity. A few poignant bits and flashes of anger aren't enough to salvage The Alamo. While technically stronger than earlier film versions, there's not enough heart here to win over audiences.

-Daniel Eagan