Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Movie review: 'Patriot' gamey

Well-crafted, well-acted epic begins well, but leaves a cheerless taste

        In the same way that a bad movie can be a lot of fun, a good movie sometimes can be mighty unpleasant.

        That's how I felt about The Patriot; it's a spectacular, well-made epic that I just could not enjoy — at least not after the first hour.

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        In its opening reels, the movie is engaging for all the right reasons — a gripping story about interesting characters living in a fascinating era, the American Revolution.

        At the center is Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a prosperous widower with seven children and a hankering to build the perfect rocking chair. However, as a member of the South Carolina Assembly, he is drawn into the debate over war with England. As a battle-scarred veteran of the French and Indian War, he wants no part of the fight.

        Meanwhile, his hot-headed son Gabriel (Heath Ledger, in a head-turning performance) charges right out and signs on with his father's old friend, Col. Harry Burwell (the reliably watchable Chris Cooper).

        In short order, the war comes to the Martin home in the sneering person of Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a sadistic Redcoat with a taste for atrocities.

        The sequence reaches a stunning climax when Benjamin hauls his younger sons into the woods to help him ambush Tavington, with guerrilla tactics he will later use as the leader of a rowdy, lethal militia.

        That first ambush has Benjamin going berserk with a tomahawk on the body of a fallen Tory, then rising up drenched in blood. It is at about this point — when the movie has more than an hour and a half to go — that it starts to lose its charm.

        It turns out that all the chat about liberty and freedom is just talk as far as Benjamin is concerned; it is revenge that gets him in the game and revenge that keeps him coming back.

        The rest of the movie alternates between tear-jerking scenes of Benjamin the Loving Father agonizing over his children and stomach-churning scenes of Benjamin the Remorseless Avenger spilling British guts.

        Mr. Gibson is entirely believeable in both roles; it is not his fault that the script by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) and the direction of Roland Emmerich (Godzilla) drags us through exhausting shifts from schmaltz to gore and back without ever achieving authentic dramatic momentum.

        The sprawling and realistically violent combat scenes, particularly the climactic battle of Cowpens, borrow from Saving Private Ryan in the same way Gladiator did, with harsh lighting and frenetic editing (not to mention the severed limbs and spurting blood).

        (A note to history buffs: Do not go to this film expecting a documentary. Though inspired by history and presented with great attention to accuracy in details such as clothing and weapons, The Patriot is a work of fiction. It contains characters, events and situations that did not and could not exist.)

        Ultimately, for all its complexity, the movie relies on Mr. Gibson's charisma to justify its excesses. While that is probably enough to guarantee The Patriot will be a monster box-office hit, it is not enough to make a believer out of me.


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