Review: “The Patriot”

Well I just got back from a screening of “Bravehear…whoops, I meant “The Patriot”. Actually the best way to sum up the movie is “Braveheart”-lite. Both have Mel Gibson leading armies in a war against the British (though at different points in time), though that is where the similarity ends. “Braveheart” was a slightly overly long but extraordinary flick which deserved many of the Oscars it got.

“The Patriot” though is standard Summer fare – a poor man’s “Gladiator”. Make no doubt this film rides on Gibson and on the acting front he certainly delivers. Two scenes especially involving his youngest daughter and his eldest son Gabriel really show off how good the guy is at performing. Nevertheless because he is there one can’t help but feel an acute sense of deja vu about proceedings. Heath Ledger is surprisingly ordinary as Gabriel which is kind of strange.

He’s great at playing the rascal type character which is why the quite & reserved Gabriel doesn’t seem to suit him (then again he played that personality type on the TV series “Sweat” to a much better result). Jason Isaacs steals the movie as the brutal Tavington and while his baddie is entirely one-dimensional, the actor gives it a true sense of menace to make him a real nasty piece of work – job well done. Most of the other characters don’t stand out though Chris Cooper and Rene Auberjonois make welcome appearances as Gibson’s old army friend and a gun-toting reverend respectively.

The script is pretty solid with some good scenes (eg. forest standoff, hideout in the mansion) but it’s full of cliche and some of the dialogue is quite ordinary. Dark humour has to be clever to work otherwise it just seems weird, sadly the attempts at gags all seem weird here (black ink teeth and even two off-taste rape jokes). The battle scenes are few and far between, mainly one short but brutal sequence watched from a window and the big 20-minute one toward the end.

Emmerich directs these quite well but after so many big battle epic movies, none of them stick to mind. In fact watching the two front lines of each army firing at each other would be effective if it were done once or twice, but by about the sixth time its kind of monotonous. Actually its the low-key brutal slaying of twenty soldiers in a forest glen by Martin and his boys that is most memorable for the sheer in your face savagery which is more frightening. In the big battles, its the brutal FX shots of a cannonball ripping off people’s heads and limbs that’ll stay with you.

The main problems with “The Patriot” don’t lie in its execution but rather more generalised factors – most visible is the two hour forty-five minute length. Whereas something like “Gladiator” you could only chop one or two scenes without losing quality, here a good half dozen or more bits could be gone without sacrificing the film’s quality one iota, maybe even improving it by beefing up the pace.

As the movie progresses, so does some serious leaps in logic – especially toward the end. One sequence has one of our heroes with a small hand knife slowly approaching a bad guy on the ground to check whether he’s dead (and to kill him if he isn’t). Anyone with half a brain would just pick up a gun (there are plenty around in that scene) and shoot or stab the body from a safe distance with a gun or bayonet rather than lean right down with a tiny knife to check – sure it would mean shooting him in the back, but it’s the safest way and he’s supposed to be dead already anyhow.

Another reservation is the subject matter itself which quite frankly feels like you’re back in high school history class. American colonial history isn’t the most particularly riveting subject, then again before you rip my head off I’m the first to admit that the history of my own country of Australia is coma-inducing in comparison (basically we’re all a bunch of convicts).

It could also be being from another country that all the brave cries of US patriotism in the film had no effect on me which does reduce the level at which one can get into the movie – if you’re a US citizen then you more than likely to enjoy the movie a little more than I did. Still, I’m not going to even start on the offensively happy portrayal of slavery in the movie. In the end though the real thing which sabotaged this flick was sadly the unoriginality.

It’s a good, solid movie with more depth than the average Summer blockbuster and some superb visuals and production design/art direction. However it lacks the imagination which made Devlin & Emmerich’s earlier work on such flicks as “Stargate” and even ID4 more memorable and enjoyable movies (thankfully ‘Patriot’ is far superior to “Godzilla”). Having Gibson gave the film the solid central performance it needed, but also heightened the feeling that we’ve seen all this before. If you’re a war movie nut or die-hard Gibson fan then this is worth a look.