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The Patriot

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Patriot

Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger
Director: Roland Emmerich
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 164 Minutes
Release Date: June 2000
Genres: Action, Drama, War

*Also starring: Joely Richardson, Lisa Brenner, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Gregory Smith, Mika Boorem, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Adam Baldwin, Tom Wilkinson

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2 stars out of 4

During the whopping two hour and 44 minute running time of "The Patriot," my mood shifted repeatedly. Early on, I found the oh-so-perfect picture postcard lighting of every single damn scene so maddening that I leaned to a friend and growled, "I hate this movie!" Then a juicy battle scene reinvigorated my fading spirits. Later, I even got a little misty during a quiet father/son moment. But just as I was ready to surrender to the story's rah-rah momentum, the filmmakers threw in a series of hero-charging-forward-waving-the-flag-in-slow-motion images so cheesy that I wanted to scream, "Run for your lives, they've remade 'The Postman!'"

What else should I have expected from a Revolutionary War epic presented by the producer and director team responsible for "Stargate," "Independence Day" and "Godzilla?" Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich are infamous for their ability to take intriguing premises and turn them into overcooked, cliché-filled, pop culture goulash. Many people find their concoctions satisfying, but as for me, pass the Pepto Bismo, please.

To be fair, "The Patriot" is one of their better offerings. The screenplay, by "Saving Private Ryan" author Robert Rodat, explores the horrifying concept of having a war fought in your own backyard, while effectively presenting the differences between the Brits' formal, "gentlemanly" approach to combat and the American militia's guerrilla tactics.

But Devlin and Emmerich's treatment of the script is remarkably ham-handed. John William's thunderous score assaults the viewer, as Mel Gibson turns from a war-wary father into a colonial Rambo. This film isn't about patriotism, it's about revenge. The ads should read "Gibson's back, and this time… it's personal! Welcome to 'Death Wish 1776.'"

Mel plays Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina widower determined to stay out of the uprising against the British and raise his seven children in peace. A veteran of the French and Indian War, he is haunted by memories of atrocities committed during battle. But his eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), views the hesitancy of his father with disdain and defiantly joins the rebels.

Months later, the fighting draws near and Gabriel returns home injured. While caring for him, and other wounded soldiers from both sides, Benjamin is visited by British troops, led by the sadistic Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs). In short order, Tavington has his men burn down the Martin home, arrests Gabriel and orders his execution and then shoots Martin's second eldest boy. As soon as Tavington leaves, Benjamin arms his children, rescues Gabriel and becomes leader of the area militia. His reputation as "The Ghost" grows to the point that British General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) sends out his troops to capture Benjamin Martin, by any means necessary.

At times, "The Patriot" delivers on its promises. Subdued conversations between Benjamin and Gabriel are moving, thanks to the skills of Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger, a handsome Aussie with talent and charisma reminiscent of Gibson in his youth. A visit to a black refuge by the sea provides a welcome respite from the fighting. Best of all is a clever, well-staged prisoner-exchange negotiation between Martin and Cornwallis.

While a couple of the extremely graphic battle scenes are gripping, most lack focus, playing out as mere excuses for Director Emmerich to fill the screen with as much blood and gore as possible (he seems particularly fond of showing the effect of cannonballs on human extremities).

Many civilian moments are as cloying as the battles are grisly. Every scene is filled with gorgeous skies, sunbeams streaming through the trees and other storybook imagery that blunts the sense of realism. Young Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner) comes off more like a contemporary woman than a colonial lass as she challenges the men-folk to enter the fray. While delivering her speech, she exchanges so many coy smiles with Gabriel that her words seem less like a call-to-arms and more like foreplay.

The single most infuriating scene comes straight out of a teen slasher flick. A good guy shoots a bad guy, who falls to the earth face down. Our hero silently approaches and leans over the body when – surprise! – the villain, apparently possessed of considerable psychic ability, springs around at precisely the right moment to strike a fatal blow. Who knew that the great-great-great grandfather of Jason from "Friday the 13th" was British?

"The Patriot" has its moments, to be sure, and I fully expect it to be one of the biggest hits of this anemic summer movie season. But the next time Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich decide to crank out another of their manipulative popcorn epics, I hope they'll stick to aliens and giant lizards and leave history alone.

Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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