The Patriot Movie Review
For a relentlessly unoriginal, pandering and predictable, two-and-a-half hour Revolutionary War epic that white-washes slavery, chooses exaggerated slow-motion action over any interest in historical accuracy and is helmed by a director who has demonstrated little talent for anything but overblown textbook filmmaking, "The Patriot" isn't a bad movie.
It's a mimeographed knock-off of "Braveheart" in buckskin vests and powdered wigs, but that doesn't seem to bother Mel Gibson, who won an Oscar for directing that film and stars in this one as another tread-upon colonial who takes up arms against England for his nation's freedom.
A hero of the French and Indian War who has since pledged to raise his children as a pacifist plantation farmer in South Carolina, Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is an amalgam of real revolutionary war figures, fantasized by screenwriter Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan") as a politically correct hero who is a wonderful widower father, who communes with the natives (he's versed in the deadly use of a Tomahawk hatchet), who employs his plantation workers instead of enslaving them, and who takes up arms again only after a stuffy, sadistic redcoat Colonel named Tavington (Jason Issacs) kills one of his sons in cold blood when he finds Martin's home filled with rebel soldiers receiving first aid after a battle.
But if anyone can take such an absurdly larger-than-life character and make him someone to root for, it's Mel Gibson, who even manages to look rugged in a pony tail and those silly three-point hats.
Although he makes little effort to submerge himself in his character, half the time putting a Martin Riggs smirk and wink on his Benjamin Martin character, Gibson is convincing as a loving but conflicted papa who loathes that his idealistic eldest son (Heath Ledger) has joined the army against his wishes.
When the murder of his other son instantly resolves his moral dilemma, Martin return to war with a bloodthirsty vengeance. He emerges in slow-mo from his burning home -- set ablaze by Tavington, of course -- bearing four muskets, two pistols, and a Mad Max scowl that could make British soldiers pee themselves at 50 paces.
"The Patriot" isn't much about character though, so after setting up a wisp of a wartime plot -- Martin and his roving band of vastly outnumbered rebel militia men must keep General Cornwallis' legions bottled up until the French arrive to join the hostilities -- the picture throws aside almost everything except paint-by-numbers action set pieces. From that point forward it focuses almost exclusively on two interests: Graphic, blow-by-blow battlefield scenes that have become a platitude of modern war epics and, eventually, revenge on that cut-and-dried, moustache-twirling butcher Tavington.
Sure, there's a love interest for both Martin (his dead wife's beautiful sister, played by Joely Richardson) and his brave, firebrand son (a local girl whose village is torched by -- you guessed it -- Tavington and his men). Sure, the movie throws in bite-sized bits of history (the colonials' use of guerrilla warfare against the line-up-and-be-shot redcoats).
But with a director like Roland Emmerich behind the wheel, substance is a low priority (he made "Independence Day" and "Godzilla").
The excessive production design in "The Patriot" gives the picture a convincingly period appearance, but Emmerich's flashy techniques (bullet-riding camera shots, gratuitous hand-held cinematography) grossly contradict the antiquated atmosphere. This is a guy who never saw an explosion he didn't like, and there are probably more blasts in this movie than there were in the entirety of the real war. And, if "The Patriot" is to be believed, the action movie head-butt was a standard tactic of 18th Century warfare.
Still, for all its adherence to formula, "The Patriot" is certainly handsome and effectively rousing in small but resounding ways, like the scenes in which Martin smelts his dead son's toy soldiers into musket balls, or when he rallies farmers and villagers to arms, resulting in a motley militia of "colorful" roughnecks from central casting.
It's a film with high popcorn value, dressed up with a sense of honor and grandeur by a flag-waving John Williams score; and it's never dull -- the 157-minute run time goes by quickly. Despite my laundry list of gripes, I admit "The Patriot" is at least on par with Emmerich's "Independence Day" as an exciting crowd-pleaser that disappoints mostly because it aims so far below its potential.
But there was one thing I could never get out of my mind, even during the film's moments of admirable integrity: "The Patriot" smacks of the Hollywood ridiculousness Mel Gibson was happy to mock so roundly as a guest star in that episode of "The Simpsons" in which he remakes "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" as an action movie and impales someone on the American flag. In fact, in this movie he does impale someone on a flagpole waving the American flag.
OK, it's a horse. But it still begs the question: How could he could make "The Patriot" with a straight face after that?