Until today, I’d been strongly averse of the work of producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, who cooked up together some of the most shallow, overblown duds of the 90s. “Universal Soldier” was generic and forgettable, even for a Van Damme flick. “Stargate” had an intriguing premise but revealed to be mostly boring and confused. “ID4” has its moments, but it remains another silly, uneven mess. As for their take on “Godzilla”, it’s so awful that it makes the campy, badly dubbed, man-in-rubber-suit original look like high art. And now whadda ya know, the two same fellas have given us a powerful epic about the original Independence Day, not a perfect film but solid filmmaking nonetheless.
As Pat O’Brien would say, how’d they do that? Well, first they got Robert Rodat to write it. Like his overrated “Saving Private Ryan” (with which “The Patriot” also shares lame scoring by John Williams), his latest script might seem overly patriotic to some, as well as melodramatic and contrived at times. But if you take it for what is, namely a good old fashioned revenge story set against an historical background, it’s damn effective. Not as much as the similarly themed “Unforgiven” and “Gladiator”, but it’s not that far. The filmmakers also had the good idea to cast the always compelling Mel Gibson, and then they just worked their butts off to craft a decent film, putting for once as much if not more emphasis on the drama lived by the characters than on the spectacle.
Meet Benjamin Martin, a widower who lives a quiet life on a farm with his 7 children (like Mel himself, except that his wife Robyn is very much alive) until 1776 comes along and talk of a revolutionary war against the British heats up. Martin is called in by Col. Burwell (Chris Cooper), who fought with him in the French and Indian wars. Indeed, Ben used to be a ruthless soldier who stopped at nothing to attain victory. But now he’s a changed man, and he wishes not to abandon his children and return to his old violent ways. But when war comes to him anyway, with red coats burning down his house and heartless Brit Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) killing one of his young sons, Martin goes berserk. He grabs a bunch of guns and a Cherokee tomahawk and kills 20 men almost single-handedly. Before long, he’s knee-deep in this conflict he didn’t want any part of.
With his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) under his command, he recruits men to form a militia of rebels. Even though they’re outnumbered, they have an advantage over the red coats: they aren’t afraid to fight dirty! You see, the Brits have this ridiculous way of conducting battles like gentlemen, with their army facing the enemy in an open field, marching in rhythm to the drums, following this whole protocol while being slaughtered. Martin and his men, on the other hand, are all about sneaky attacks and traps, and soon they become big enough a threat to worry General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) and rally up soon-to-be-Americans to fight for freedom.
“The Patriot” is a vastly entertaining and involving picture, miles above and beyond his crass popcorn movies. The ultraviolent battle scenes are riveting, the movie looks great and the human drama is generally conducted with skill. This movie will alternately have you thrilled, horrified, moved, even laughing. Sure, it isn’t very deep, the politics of the American Revolution are all but forgotten about and it sometimes falls into clichés and stereotypes, like in some of the scenes revolving around the oh-so-colorful militia, with its French soldier, its Black slave, its priest and so on. Halfway through the movie, in fact, the momentum is lost for a while as the focus shifts from Gibson’s revenge-fueled involvement in the war to more trivial matters of family life and romance – there’s even a marriage scene. But eventually, we do return to more serious and intense fare and the movie ends on a crowd-pleasing note (expect people to applaud the final battle sequence).
The cast is uniformly good, but the movie mostly lies on the shoulders of Mel Gibson, who does some of his best acting work here. It’s near sadistic how the film has him going though so much tragedy and self-questioning, but Gibson delivers emotionally. Plus, Emmerich gives him in return a few instantly classic moments, notably his carnage with a tomahawk and his run through a battlefield with the American flag firmly in hand. Overall, despite its few flaws, “The Patriot” is a must-see.