*** 1/2 Stars
(US 2000)

Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Writing Credits: Robert Rodat

Sony Pictures Entertainment * 164 minutes

Screened at: Loew's Ramsey Interstate

Martin Riggs is the kind of character (LETHAL WEAPON I, II, III, IV... ad nauseum) an actor longs to play. He's tough, but sensitive, has a wacky sense of humor, and demonstrates the kind of raging grief that makes women want to cook him soup. Mel Gibson knows what a great character Martin Riggs is -- so much so that he portrays him, over, and over, and over again. BRAVEHEART? Martin Riggs in a kilt. HAMLET? Martin Riggs in Denmark. MAD MAX? Martin Riggs post-apocalypse. And now, Martin Riggs in knee breeches. Riggs is a money character, and Mel Gibson has turned him into a sort of middle-aged Marty McFly, time-travelling in a DeLorean from one heroic setting to the next.

This time, Riggs is embodied as Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the French & Indian War, who bears the kind of emotional scars from that experience that make him loath to fight again. Now a widower (you don't want to be James Bond's girlfriend, Clint Eastwood's sidekick, or Mel Gibson's wife) and father of seven children, his answer to the call to join the fight for Independence is "I'm a parent. I haven't got the luxury of principles." Martin merely wants to farm his South Carolina plantation land, rear his children and make rocking chairs that don't hold up.

However, he is a reluctant convert when the British show up on his doorstep, executing a group of wounded rebel soldiers convalescing on the porch and arresting his eldest son Gabriel (Aussie newcomer Heath Ledger) as a spy. When his second-oldest son Thomas (Gregory Smith) is shot in cold blood by the sneering and ruthless Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) while trying to free his brother, he realizes that he can no longer "hide behind his family."

Parking his youngest son and daughters with his dead-wife's sister, the comely Charlotte (Joely Richardson, with little to do but model some gut-busting 18th century corsetry), he tosses muskets to his two other sons and embarks on a seemingly futile quest to liberate Gabriel before he can be hanged. "Aim small, miss small,"he tells them, as the three of them take down an entire battalion of British officers. Now, much fuss has been made about this particular scene, but any parent who is unable to explain to a child how this scenario is morally different from Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shooting up a school because people thought they were homosexual geeks has no business being a parent.

Along the road to freedom, Martin and his ragtag band of merry men (largely recruited from a neighborhood pub) join forces with a wry French colonel, Lafayette-equivalent Jean Villeneuve (Tcheky Karyo) to fight bravely as the British commit an ever-escalating series of atrocities, breaking all rules of war. Some ripping battle scenes are interspersed with a rather humorous subplot involving British General Cornwallis' (Tom Wilkinson) dogs; an aimed-at-the-teens young romance between Gabriel and Anne Howard (Keri Russell lookalike Lisa Brenner) that features the odd colonial custom of "bundling", an anachronistically spirited young lady; and some strange business about Martin's youngest daughter Susan (Skye McCole Bartusiak), who refuses to speak.

The film's two-and-one-half-hours-plus of running time are packed with story, and only flags in a very few places. Director Roland Emmerich, whose previous outing was the aggressively unwatchable GODZILLA, and screenwriter Robert Rodat, who penned the screenplay for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, understand what makes an epic film work: take a Great Event, create fictional characters based on archetypes, give them enough dimension so that we care about them, hire a terrific cast of attractive actors to portray them, and let them embody on a small, manageable level, a cataclysmic event, or period, in history. To paraphrase Benjamin Martin's exhortation to his sons, "Aim small, film large." When this technique works, you get GONE WITH THE WIND, TITANIC, or DR. ZHIVAGO. And if THE PATRIOT isn't quite in this league, it nevertheless brings the American Revolution alive in a way few films ever have.

Another feature of epic films is that they tend to be loaded with clichés, melodrama, and overused themes, and THE PATRIOT is no different. At times, it seems cobbled together from a number of movies you've already seen, from PATTON to STAR WARS, and yes, BRAVEHEART. At other times it seems cheap, cynical, and manipulative. For Benjamin Martin to melt down his dead son's painstakingly handpainted tin soldiers to make artillery shells once is poignant and effective. Twice is overkill, and by the third time, you're ready to say, "Enough already!" But you don't care that you're being manipulated, because as much as Rodat's script is taking some heat for playing somewhat fast and loose with the facts, this is, at least marginally, Our History.

THE PATRIOT is a curious combination of American rah-rah and Oliver Stone-esque sledgehammering against the brutality of war. The utter absurdity of pre-industrial age combat, in which lines of soldiers march towards each other, then upon command, shoot at each other such that most of the front lines fall, is clearly evident here, just as it was in BRAVEHEART. This film in unsparing in its view of the damage of war, both on the battlefield and the "collateral damage" of burnt-out homes and murdered family members. This is no rah-rah pro-war film, for all that it clearly sympathizes with the Revolutionary cause. The British are unstintingly evil, and if the Americans are not uniformly virtuous, they are at least heroic. When Benjamin Martin, grievously wounded, exhorts his men to charge with him to lay waste to Cornwallis' huge army, waving a tattered Stars and Stripes, even a bleeding heart New York Jewish Democratic Clinton-supporting liberal like Your Humble Critic actually had stirrings of pride.

THE PATRIOT is blessed, and its weaknesses redeemed, by uniformly fine performances, led by Mel Gibson as the reluctant soldier, and Heath Ledger as his impetuous son. Gibson may be Martin Riggs all the time, but he's a very convincing Martin Riggs, and at least this is a character with many dimensions. Gibson has some great moments in this film, most notably a wonderful sequence in which he matches wits with General Cornwallis, and wins. Gibson may be getting a tad craggy-faced and old for the sort of swashbuckling hero he continues to play, but when his character is able to use his brain as well as his brawn, he can still light up the screen. And no other actor can convey barely-repressed grief-stricken rage in quite the same way. These layers of character are what has enabled Gibson to mold a reputation as one of the great actors of his generation, while portraying the same character in virtually every film. Gibson is given a perfect foil in Chris Cooper, as Col. Harry Burwell, who seeks, at first vainly, to enlist Martin's help in the war effort. Cooper again, as in AMERICAN BEAUTY, gives a stolid, understated, thoughtful performance.

In an attempt to bring in the teen audience, Emmerich has cast young Ledger, who only looks as if he was stamped out by that Pretty Blond Boy factory that Hollywood seems to have. Ledger may have a California surfer-boy face and a cute smile, but boasts a booming, passionate voice and carries himself with a gravitas that most of his peers lack. If anyone is well-situated to be passed the Gibson mantle, it is his young countryman.

Jason Isaacs is the latest entry in this summer's parade of sneering English villains. Sporting a pair of icy baby-blues every bit the equal of Gibson's themselves, but with what romance novels call a "cruel mouth", his Col. Tavington is the Sgt. Calley of the King's army. The always-excellent Tom Wilkinson provides General Cornwallis with more nuance of character, as at least Cornwallis still believes that wars should have rules of conduct.

The actors who portray Benjamin Martin's other children are remarkably understated. No "kid actor" syndrome is evident here. The standout, however, is the unfortunately-named Skye McCole Bartusiak as the somewhat mute Susan. This young Kirsten Dunst lookalike has a goodbye scene with Gibson that is so perfectly rendered, it nearly tore the guts out of even an old cynic like me.

The one unforgivable weakness in THE PATRIOT is the way it seeks to avoid the slavery issue entirely. By making the character of Benjamin Martin a South Carolina plantation owner, Rodat has by definition made him a slaveowner. But since he is portrayed by Our Mel, Benjamin Martin is the only farmer in the south who hires only free blacks. Perhaps this is too complex an issue to be handled by a film already running well over 2-1/2 hours, but it smacks of white people trying to rewrite history again.

The production values are terrific, with sun-dappled fields and food-laden kitchens worthy of a Colonial Williamsburg promo spot and battle scenes that spare no horror, including a knockout shot of a cannonball seemingly aimed right at the viewer. The nighttime scenes in the South Carolina swamp, in which Martin and his men hide, are spookily reminiscent of the eeriest of Tim Burton's films.

I'm not one for patriotism, and certainly the real life history of the libertines, geniuses, and ordinary men who fought so many years ago to literally give us the nation we have, is far more fascinating than any fictional character. But THE PATRIOT is a worthy entry in the limited body of film celebrating the American Revolution. I was one of only six viewers at the show I attended, and it's only a shame that so relatively few people were interested in even a fictional treatment of why we eat hot dogs and potato salad on July 4.

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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