The Patriot
review by KJ Doughton, 30 June 2000

Mel Gibson might as well make "vengeance" his middle name. Oh, sure -- fellow Aussie beefcake Russell Crowe took an admirable stab at one-upping mighty Mel as Gladiatorís justice-seeking hero. But Gibsonís been playing a score settler since way back in 1980, when his leather-clad Mad Max kicked serious biker butt after seeing his family run down and killed. Gibson continued this revenge theme with Lethal Weaponís wild-eyed cop, Martin Riggs, who staggered through four films as a jittery crackpot who withstood inhuman torture and punishment, only to rise up and crush his tormentors. But why stop there? We havenít even touched on Ransom, Conspiracy Theory, Braveheart, and -- inevitably -- Payback, all of which featured this deliverer of retribution doing what he does best. Indeed, it would be entirely appropriate for Gibson to name his production company after the Metallica song, Damage, Inc.

The plight of The Patriotís Redcoat-slashing hero, Benjamin Martin, isnít much different than those of other screwed-over loose cannons heís played, aside from the Revolutionary War acting as a backdrop. The story is laced with early-American politics and historical flourishes, but at its core, The Patriot is a revenge melodrama... again. Nix the ponytail, and Benjamin could be William Wallace, sporting a kilt as he dodges Britainís arrows, or Martin Riggs running down drug smugglers in Los Angeles. Same old song and dance? Perhaps. Yet, what a sensational jig this Gibson dances! The eyes blaze. The teeth gleam. The nostrils flare. With the possible exception of Al Pacino in his prime, thereís not another thespian alive that can match this commanding starís fury as heís downing the enemy with musket, sword, and hatchet. It works, so Gibson isnít about to fix it.

The Patriot begins with long, panoramic scenes of colonial-era South Carolina. Eight of the thirteen American colonies have formed militias to fight against the invading British armies, and mobs are burning a likeness of King George in Charlestown. Meanwhile, an assembly has convened there, with Colonial soldiers encouraging locals to establish their own military force. Martin, however, rejects the notion. A legendary warrior from the French-Indian Wars, this father of seven children has his reservations about returning to combat. When a comrade questions Martinís principles, the retort is blunt and assured: "Iím a parent. I donít have the luxury of principles."

But thereís something bothering Martin about the Revolution that extends beyond his paternal concern for family safety. The inevitable war is forcing him to re-evaluate past deeds and agonize over a colonial post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Looking into a rear view mirror with an old and wiser eye, this mellowed dad doesnít like what he sees. When one of his sons peruses through an old war chest, finding and donning his dadís military uniform, Martin gives him a disapproving glance. "Put it away," he instructs coldly. Later on in the film, we learn the full extent of this manís past wartime deeds. Itís not pretty.

Before long, Redcoats and Colonial soldiers are exchanging gunfire outside the Martin homestead, where Benjamin is acting the role of pacifist by tending to the wounds of both sides from his porch. The reluctant warrior is jolted into action, however, when a cruel British colonel named Tavington (Jason Isaacs) shackles the eldest of Martinís sons, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), and yanks him off of the family farm to be hanged. As one of his younger boys attempts to rescue Gabriel, the remorseless colonel shoots him in the back. Following this cold-blooded offense, Mel becomes The Payback Patriot.

"Lord, make me fast and accurate," Martin prays before leading two younger sons to a swampy crossing and ambushing Gabrielís captors. Itís a horrifying sequence, as the father instructs his prepubescent boys to kill on sight and joins them in a bloody, savage rescue involving guns and hatchets. The eerie executions, juggling slow motion with gritty, up-close battle, echo Michael Mannís gorgeously gory war scenes from Last of the Mohicans, and Steven Spielbergís unsparing carnage from Saving Private Ryan. In subsequent battles, where the stakes are raised and thousands of troops charge each other with cannons and musket fire, heads and limbs are removed en masse by speeding, metal projectiles. As with Gibsonís Academy-Award Winner Braveheart, The Patriot is distinguished by riveting, realistic, and rousing battle scenes.

Meanwhile, thereís more than just gore and grue. Robert Rodatís complex script weaves together a web of details that often seem like throwaways until they evolve into more crucial plot points later on. And there are surprises. After the rescue of Gabriel, for instance, Martin is shocked to hear one of the participating sons relishing the memory of his killings. "Iím glad I killed them," the boy proclaims with complete conviction. Itís scary to hear the youngster process combat not as trauma, but as liberation.

There are clever scenes involving Martinís attempts to recruit militia members, after heís finally committed himself to the Colonial cause. Interrupting a church service, his pushy recruiters convince a minister to enlist. "A shepherd must tend to his flock," says the inspired clergyman, "and sometimes fight off the wolves."

On the downside, there are also sappy moments, including a tacked-on romance between Gabriel and a peppy romantic interest named Ann: the two mischievous lovebirds lace each otherís tea with ink and giggle lovingly with black-toothed smiles. By filmís end, this dumb courtship ritual has become a tired gag. Equally overstated are The Patriotís many, unending scenes of people coming to mutual understandings and exchanging knowing glances, while John Williamsí feel-good score pounds forth annoyingly. For instance, thereís the token African American slave who continues to fight with Martinís troops even after being granted his freedom. "Itís a pleasure to serve with you," offers a white soldier when the slave announces; "Now Iím here on my own accord." More knowing glances and soaring strings follow. Ho-hum.

Ultimately, The Patriot boils down to a confrontation between Martin and Tavington, and itís fortunate that this adversarial relationship anchors the movie. Isaacs plays the British Colonel as a fiendish monster equal parts Captain Hook, Hannibal Lector, and Sgt. Barnes of Platoon. Wielding a crooked sword and painting the battlefield as red as his uniform, this mannered, sneering thug isnít beyond burning a church full of worshippers or impaling fresh-faced Colonial recruits just for the ugly fun of it. When he lets down his waist-length mane during the final bloody battle, Tavington resembles a charismatic rock frontman strutting for a crowd. Carnal, cunning, and wicked, Isaacsí Tavington is one of the best screen villains of the past decade. 

Another star of The Patriot is its unlikely director Roland Emmerich. Previously known for such all-hype, no-substance formula blockbusters as Stargate, Independence Day, and Godzilla, Emmerich has coupled the wide-screen, larger-than-life feel of those movies with a personal touch that they lacked. When he gives characters time to breathe, as when Martin finally comes clean with Gabriel about his French-Indian War past, itís riveting. Emmerichís association with this ambitious historical epic is also an encouraging sign that big-budget filmmakers are willing to get beyond aliens and tired, futuristic sci-fi, and dig into the archives of history for their projects. Commend Saving Private Ryan and Titanic for this welcome trend, and embrace a future where the high-tech filmmaking of the new millenium brings history into a sharper, more colorful focus.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview with Jason Isaacs.

Directed by:
Roland Emmerich

Mel Gibson
Heath Ledger
Jason Isaacs
Chris Cooper
Joely Richardson

Written by:
Robert Rodat




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