Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Rebel yell

Movie: The Patriot

Posted on Tue, Jun 27, 2000 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

The deep red of ever-flowing blood, the white of lost innocence and the bright blue promise of self-rule are the colors of a father's love in "The Patriot," this summer's unavoidable event movie. As crafted by "Independence Day" director Roland Emmerich, it's a riveting, slick, graphically violent piece of entertainment, a three-hour exercise in vengeance disguised as a celebration of the hard-won freedoms America wrested from British forces more than 200 years ago.

If any doubts linger that the struggle was worth its cost in lives and suffering, Emmerich and screenwriter Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan") suggest that they ought to be dismissed. To prove it, they give us Mel Gibson as an inspiration on the battlefield -- and a hero slightly reminiscent of the ones he played in "Braveheart" and "Mad Max" -- who literally waves Old Glory around in rebellious fervor.

Who could argue with that resonant image? And who could do anything but submit to the grand sweep, human drama and fight-to-the-death sparring of "The Patriot," based in part on the real-life exploits of Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion?

Gibson taps into the right combination of bloodthirstiness and patriarchal concern as Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the French and Indian War who masterminded one of that conflict's ugliest moments. Now he's determined to live out the remainder of his days as a pacifist, one who's devoted to protecting his seven motherless children, building structurally unsound rocking chairs and occasionally tending to his duties on his sprawling South Carolina farm.

In 1776, the fomenting revolution literally lands on Martin's front porch, and his make-love-not-war ethos is forgotten along with last year's cotton crop. The brutal, brooding British Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs, fine as a sneering slimeball) visits a harsh tragedy on the Martin family, arresting oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger of "10 Things I Hate About You") and planning to hang the boy as a spy.

In short order, this superdad arms his two younger sons, orchestrates a successful attack on a 20-strong British unit and frees Gabriel. The sequence -- the first of many expertly paced scenes of up-close combat -- concludes with the unforgettable sights of little boys killing soldiers and the unhinged Martin using his tomahawk to hack away at a dead man, his face and clothes bathed in splattering blood. Taken out of context, that tableau would stand as a frightening indictment of the inhumanity of warfare, even the sort that results in the emancipation of the oppressed.

There's more carnage, including a couple of scenes that graphically demonstrate the impact of a cannonball on a human head and limbs; a horrible mass murder of civilians; and, of course, a hand-to-hand showdown with the evil Tavington. Along the way, Martin engineers a variety of successful ambushes against the enemy, humiliates General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), gives his blessing to Gabriel's puppy-love romance with a sweet girl from town (Lisa Brenner) and falls in love with Charlotte (Joely Richardson), his late wife's sister.

"The Patriot" is an intimate portrait of the American Revolution, a portrayal with much more oomph -- if less accuracy -- than can be found in a history textbook. It's impressively assembled and photographed, competently written and acted, and nearly sharp enough to help us forget Hugh Hudson's 1985 "Revolution" and the handful of other, equally awful films that focused on the same period. What took so long to get it so nearly right?

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