A note to filmmakers who want to make a movie about a war: Please understand that your film does not need to be as long as the actual war itself. We will not hold it against you if it's shorter. As such, I will try to keep this review to a length where you can read it in a few minutes.
The Patriot gives Mel Gibson the opportunity to do something he's never done before: To orate at length about the evils of taxation without representation... oh, okay... and to kill a bunch of damn redcoats!!!
Faced with the death of his wife, The Patriot offers us Gibson the widower pacifist, playing the part of South Carolina colonialist Benjamin Martin, unswayed by arguments that war should be initiated against Britain. When his son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) enlists despite his father's forbiddance, Martin is left at home to raise his other six kids while the war rages around him.
Circumstances arise to take the life of one of the children at the hands of the uber-evil redcoat Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), which awakens the repressed blood lust in the former soldier Martin. Perhaps one of the best battle scenes ever filmed follows, with Martin and two of his kids picking off 20 redcoats in the forest, leaving Martin covered in gore.
The Patriot soon becomes the epic it was intended to be, with grand colonial battles fought by lines of soldiers politely shooting at one another until one side is dead. But Martin (an amalgam of several real Revolutionaries) brings dirty guerilla tactics to the war, and after forming a militia of scrappy mercenaries, soon he's got General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) running scared.
While The Patriot will draw obvious comparisons to Braveheart, it is actually far more reminiscent of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood sprinkled with a bit of The Last of the Mohicans. Martin lives in the woods and attacks the Brits in small groups, absconding with their booty. There's even a holy man (Rene Auberjonois) and a foreigner (Tchéky Karyo, in a great supporting turn as a French sympathizer) who fight alongside the rebels.
This turns out to be a good thing, because God knows we don't need another Braveheart. The Patriot also turns out to be a message movie, filled with issues regarding honor vs. survival, vengeance vs. forgiveness, negotiation vs. war, and glory vs. sacrifice. This isn't just some ordinary war movie. It's deep, with John Williams' score driving the heart-tugging home and Roland Emmerich's direction not getting in the way. And I say all that in a rare moment of non-sarcasm.
Unfortunately, at close to three hours in length, The Patriot has plenty of time to get hokey. The bad guy is drawn as broadly as a Bond villain, and a gaggle of subplots don't add much to the film, just making it unnecessarily longer. The anti-slavery motif is especially hokey and unneeded.
But, as usual, I quibble. The Patriot, against all expectations, is probably the best movie I've seen this summer to date. And where else can a German director and an Australian star put together a movie about the Revolutionary War. Ah, only in America.