Watching the first six hours of “Texas Rising,” a wonderfully cast and otherwise completely wooden miniseries, one has to wonder what inspired the History channel to expand the production from six hours to 10. Chronicling a chapter in the Lone Star state’s bloody ascent to U.S. statehood that begins in the ashes of the Alamo, the Roland Joffe-directed project juggles too many indifferently written, tough-talkin’ characters, as if “Lonesome Dove” had experienced a sharp blow to the head. Fans of Westerns will no doubt be eager to immerse themselves in this once-abundant, now-underutilized genre, but for those who tend to be discriminating about their TV watching, don’t mess with “Texas.”
Granted, History has enjoyed considerable success with oaters in this particular window — witness the breakout ratings for “Hatfields & McCoys” in 2012 — and one suspects “Texas Rising” could capitalize on a similar dynamic, albeit in a less-ostentatious way. But even with its flaws, “Hatfields” was a much more accomplished production than this one, despite the gaudy assortment of actors who get dressed up for the rodeo.
It’s a shame, really, since so many “remember the Alamo,” to quote the oft-cited rallying cry, without knowing much about what happened thereafter. Beginning in 1836, “Texas Rising” seeks to fill in that gap, finding “Texian” Gen. Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) trying to wage a tactical fight against the larger army of Mexico’s military leader Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez), a true sadist who seems to exult in ruthlessly murdering prisoners in order to send a message to the rebels.
Houston’s problem is that he’s outnumbered, and several of his more unruly subordinates are itching to avenge their losses in San Antonio, labeling Houston “gutless” for refusing to engage Santa Anna’s forces. Houston, meanwhile, receives savvy advice from a deaf Texas Ranger (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who would be worth a regiment if he weren’t coughing up blood; and help from a former paramour (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who’s eager to seek revenge for the loss of her brother.
Numerous others fill out the sprawling cast, including a pair of young rangers (Adam Hicks, Dillon Lane) seemingly thrown in more for demographic reasons than for than anything else, and a sniveling deserter (Jeremy Davies) who offers a kind of grim comic relief. Others include Brendan Fraser as one of Houston’s men; Kris Kristofferson, under a wild mop of hair as President Andrew Jackson; and Ray Liotta (virtually unrecognizable) as an Alamo survivor who spends more time slitting throats than speaking.
“I kill Mexicans,” he grunts in part three, which might be his longest line of dialogue.
Nobody fares particularly well here, due largely to a script credited to exec producer Leslie Greif, Darrell Fetty and George Nihil. That said, the wholly one-dimensional way the Mexicans are depicted is troublesome, leaving Martinez especially — with his perfectly coiffed Snidely Whiplash mustache — to come across as if he’s auditioning to become the Most Interesting General in the World.
“Cut the head off the snake, the body dies,” Morgan’s character, named Deaf Smith, counsels Houston at one point. Crank out a handsome-looking miniseries that pays more attention to the marketing campaign than the script, and much the same thing happens.