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THE PATRIOT

Review by Andrew Manning (7/00)

Release: 2000, Sony
Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs
Director: Roland Emmerich
MPAA Rating: [R] violence
Genre: Drama/Action




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SUMMARY

In this dramatization of the American Revolution, an ex-war hero (Gibson) is forced to fight and kill again when his family and home are threatened by the British.

THE SUDDEN RUNDOWN

The Patriot lacks originality and is mired by movie conventions, but still manages to be a well crafted film that is thoroughly entertaining.

WHAT'S GOOD

Going into this movie, I knew I was in for a long, historical epic--and I generally hate long, drawn out dramas. I have also seen Mel Gibson fight for freedom in Braveheart and Chicken Run, so the prospect of him battling for independence yet again didn't seem all that interesting. But despite these early strikes against it, I have to admit that The Patriot was a solid movie that will easily be amongst the top films of the year.

The Patriot is a historical drama focused on the American Revolution. Mel Gibson plays legendary war veteran Benjamin Martin, a single father with a large family. He is tormented daily by the memories of what he did to the French during the war, praying for forgiveness and trying to avoid conflict. But his intentions to lay down the sword are dashed when the British march through his hometown and kill members of the local militia who are fighting for freedom. In the process, the redcoats, led by the cruel and merciless Colonel Tavington (played with perfect villainy by Jason Isaacs), destroy his house and kill one of his sons.

At this point, some 30 minutes into the story, the single greatest action moment of the whole movie occurs. Mel Gibson, enraged by the death of his son, goes completely Mad Max. He salvages all the weapons from his house, takes two of his surviving sons, and tracks down the British squad responsible for the carnage. While he has his two kids lay down cover fire for him, he sneaks up on the soldiers and slaughters them all one by one. Watching Gibson's character take out twenty men is truly a sight to behold: he shoots them, he smashes them with the barrel of his gun, and he hacks them to bits with a tomahawk. It's absolutely grizzly, and may very well be the most graphically violent scene in mainstream movies this year.

For the action enthusiast, The Patriot has an abundance of fighting scenes that have an unnerving sense of realism attached, thanks to the primitive depiction of war. Guns of this era are short range weapons that must be reloaded after every shot, allowing for God-knows-what to happen before you can squeeze off a second blast. Cannonballs smash into people with brutal consequences, breaking off heads and limbs in the most gruesome manner.

The story, while hardly original, is engaging from beginning to end. Benjamin Martin is a man who doesn't want to go back to killing. He is an idealist who wants to resolve America's grievances with England through politics. He refuses to fight, and because of this, some of his sons believe him to be cowardly. His oldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), enlists in the local militia, gung-ho at the prospect of shedding blood for his country. Benjamin knows the harsh realities of war, and doesn't want his son to follow in his footsteps, but despite all his pleas, Gabriel goes off to war. Eventually, the battle comes to their home and affects them firsthand, and it's at that point that Benjamin realizes he must take action. He joins the militia and fights alongside his oldest son.

Jason Isaacs turns in an excellent performance as the central villain: the ruthless English Colonel Tavington. To the dismay of his military superior, he violates the rules of warfare in favor of getting the job done. He shoots children without remorse, he has a church burned to the ground, and he revels in extreme cruelty. He is therefore an excellent on-screen villain--twisted, intimidating, and perfectly evil.

The "buxom wench" look (see also Sleepy Hollow) appears to be in fashion during this era, as evidenced by Joely Richardson's cumbersome, never changing wardrobe.

By bringing the battles onto American soil in the midst of simple townfolk, The Patriot casts the birth of our nation into a harsh perspective, driving home the fact that America was not always the pristine sanctuary we sometimes think it to be. But in spite of its mission to recreate the American Revolution, history is not the movie's strong point. Instead, its strengths are the well-paced action sequences, the father-son relationships found throughout, the ghosts in Benjamin's past, and the examination of vengeance as a virtue. For these elements, this is a movie not to be missed. And even though it clocks in at two and a half hours, it never gives you the chance to get bored.


WHAT'S BAD

The Patriot shamelessly embraces every movie trick in the book to elicit emotions. For example, Mel Gibson has a little girl who refuses to speak throughout most of the movie. But when he is about to leave for war again and the story requires a tearjerker, the little girl starts crying, "Daddy, daddy, don't go, I'll say anything you want." Damn, if that isn't the cheapest shot! It felt like they were only one step away from drowning puppy dogs or shooting crippled orphans. Still, the scene was well done, so instead of appearing cliche and cheesy, it was only transparent and unoriginal.

Other attempts to milk sympathy didn't fly so well. Soon after the oldest son Gabriel gets married, Tavington has the wife and all her fellow townspeople killed. I understand that it's supposed to give Gabriel an additional reason to want to kill Tavington, but it struck me as unnecessary. After all, Tavington had killed Gabriel's younger brother in the beginning of the movie, and so had already given him a reason for vengeance early on. Another reason it didn't really work was because the wife--despite being "the prettiest girl in all of town"--wasn't a very interesting character. In fact, the scene in which she lays peer pressure and guilt on the town in order to get the men to sign up for the militia struck me as the most shallow moment of the entire story.

Still other subplots are just outright bad: there's the stereotypical black guy who has to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his stereotypically racist white colleagues (and of course, he does). In fact, when it comes to race relations, The Patriot is painfully self-aware that it's a year 2000 movie in how it apologizes for slavery--it depicts the Martins as having a whole plantation full of black servants, but forces the caveat that "they're not really slaves, because that would be wrong." Mel Gibson and his family are made out to be "good masters" for the sole purpose of avoiding a confrontation with the audience. Just because we don't agree with slavery today doesn't mean it didn't happen, and I think the writers would have done well to spare us the convoluted fairy tale cleanliness.

For the most part, though, The Patriot succeeds even when it's being formulaic. And that, perhaps, is the reason why so many people enjoy it--it is a movie that is easily liked, with a solid story and a good cast.


Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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