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The Patriot   C+

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: Robert Rodat
Cast: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois.

Review by Rob Vaux

Mel Gibson seems to have it in for Englishmen these days. He thwarts their farmers in Chicken Run, kills them by the hundreds in Braveheart, and even chews off their noses in Conspiracy Theory. Now comes The Patriot, a chance for him to shoot, hack, maim, and bludgeon his way through a whole army of marauding redcoats -- all in the name of liberty, of course. Hey Mel, the sun has set. Cut them some slack, will ya?

There certainly are enough nasty Englishmen in The Patriot to slake his bloodlust, led by the sadistic Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a dragoon commander ready to put a bullet in every colonial he sees. Gibson's Benjamin Martin is an easy enough fellow before Tavington comes along. Having fought in the French and Indian War -- and done things there that still keep him up nights -- Martin isn't interested in tangling with the British army. He'd rather stay on his South Carolina plantation, raise his children and leave the war to less troubled men like Colonel Burwell (the stalwart Chris Cooper). But then Tavington rides over the ridge, smirking down his nose and cutting through women and children like Attila the Hun. It doesn't take much for him to resurrect Martin's sense of righteous anger and we're off on another extended game of Poke The Limey.

Whatever its flaws, The Patriot is certainly a step up for direct Roland Emmerich, whose previous work includes two of the worst science fiction films of the last decade. Here, he gets a chance to play with historical drama and the results, while uninspired, certainly don't sink to the depths of, say, Godzilla. The costumes and settings all ring true and the battle sequences stay accurate to the time period. There's a terrific scene where Gibson and his son (Heath Ledger) watch passively while American forces get chewed up on the battlefield before them. Emmerich stages it well, and Martin's soft explanations reveal why the colonials fought dirty: you can't go toe-to-toe with the British Empire and expect to walk away.

Unfortunately, scenes like these never quite add up to a satisfying whole. Emmerich can't establish a consistent tone throughout the piece, and his work suffers from some embarrassing technical gaffes (the period flavor is ruined more than once by the subtle intrusion of Ye Olde Boom Mike). The battle scenes work, but never soar the way they're clearly intended. The script is a bit ungainly as well. There's a unique pretension at work that only two-and-a-half hour films can muster: a sense that all of this is terribly important and must be handled with sufficient reverence (Braveheart suffered from the same disease). We're treated to some ham-handed musing about race relations, a lot of arguments on the nature of honor, and some too-cute romantic subplots that are neither moving nor particularly interesting.

Gibson is in fine form, as always, and his performance lends a lot of weight to some of the script's more maudlin moments. When contrasted with his comedic work in Chicken Run, The Patriot shows just how versatile an actor he is. Gibson anchors Martin with a strong sense of reality, and brings some well-needed evenness to the work. The supporting cast is more spotty, but has some nice moments as well (especially Isaacs, having a great time with Tavington's villainy).

In fact, "spotty with nice moments" may be an accurate summation of the entire film. There's some good stuff here -- far more than one would think, considering the source -- but it never quite puts it all together. The Patriot ultimately falters with a reach that exceeds its grasp and aspirations it can't possibly meet. You can kill all the Englishmen you want, but good drama makes you care about why. The Patriot lacks that final, vital spark, leaving us to shake our heads and wonder at what it could have been.

Review published 07.07.2000.

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