Somewhere in the distended middle of The Patriot — a bargain for your buck at just under three hours — the villain in chief, a British army officer with equine nostrils and an annoying habit of whacking innocent bystanders to the American War of Independence, finds himself under serious pressure from a tatty band of insurgent colonialists headed by Mel Gibson. Colonel Tavington’s guard drops, and so does his long, lustrous hair. His flinty blue eyes soften, and for a moment we glimpse the actor Jason Isaacs for what he really is — Mel Gibson‘s replacement in the next historical mini-epic. There’s no getting around the fact that next to Isaacs, Gibson looks jowly, wrinkled and more than a touch fatigued. Add to that a ponytail that would make a man 15 years his junior look like mutton dressed up as lamb, and you have an icon cruising rapidly south.
Over Gibson‘s dead body. Deep inside himself, America’s favorite American-born Aussie must know that he‘s getting a little too seasoned to pull off many more Bravehearts. Which may be why, as The Patriot opens, he comes to us retooled as a peace-loving superdad to seven exquisite kids. Humbled by atrocities he’s seen and committed during the French and Indian War, the widowed Benjamin Martin has dug in on his South Carolina plantation and is giving domesticity the old college try, when along come the bloomin‘ British, led by the odious Tavington and the wily careerist Lord General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson, in The Patriot’s lone restrained performance), to goad him back into Mad Max mode at the helm of the rebellious militias. It figures: The movie‘s director is Roland Emmerich, who brought us Godzilla and Independence Day, and he’s not about to introduce more home life than is necessary to set up Benjamin as Mr. Mom. “I‘m a parent,” Benjamin bleats feebly when an old Army buddy (Chris Cooper) tries to enlist him to fight the Brits. “I haven’t got the luxury of principles.” (Though most of the dialogue in the movie — written by Robert Rodat, who also wrote Saving Private Ryan and the lovely goose picture Fly Away Home — has this sort of ‘90s timbre, the straight talk jars a whole lot less than the thees and thines that typically pepper period-speak in studio historical movies.) Much of The Patriot’s incidental charm comes from the relaxed rapport with which Gibson, who‘s had plenty of practice with his own small army of offspring, engages the children. To those of us who prefer our Gibson more quietly ironic and self-deprecating (see The Year of Living Dangerously, Conspiracy Theory and, from what I’ve heard, Chicken Run), the downtime in The Patriot is also the most pleasurable.
Still, audiences don‘t flock to Gibson’s movies to see him kibitzing with infants. Which is why, in The Patriot, Benjamin‘s sister-in-law Charlotte, played by Joely Richardson in the key of pretty dimpling, hovers tactfully in the wings, ready and willing to provide round-the-clock day care so that Benjamin can dump his petty scruples and get down to the business at hand: raising hell like the Pimpernel. The Patriot has some expertly staged battle scenes, but these bloodbaths are decidedly small fry for Emmerich. And cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who shot Fly Away Home and The Black Stallion, may be too much of a lyricist for this material: There’s hardly a scene in The Patriot without shafts of light filtering through trees, which makes the landscape look almost comically idyllic, more like the set for a summer-stock revival of A Midsummer Night‘s Dream than a theater of war.
Other than visually, the movie’s sense of period skitters all over the map. Benjamin has an alarming habit of disgorging pellets of American history every time he opens his mouth. (“I, too, am angry about taxation without representation,” he tells the Charleston Assembly. “But I won‘t go to war for it.”) The 18th century be damned: Though Benjamin’s character is modeled on several Revolutionary heroes, he‘s a walking handshake between late-1960s liberal guilt and gung-ho late-1990s reaction. He’s a plantation owner who, by some miracle, has managed to avoid owning slaves — and just to make life more comfortable, he‘s so good at harnessing loyalty that when a slave who fights alongside him is freed at last, the slave stays to fight on.
The really gory good fun in The Patriot comes at the guerrilla level when Benjamin, who’s more of a hand-to-hand man, goes at the Brits with rifles (enough sharpshooting lessons take place in the Martin family to bring a smile to the faces of the NRA lobby), knives, axes and a pranksterish cheek that earns him the name “The Ghost” when he single-handedly takes out 20 of England‘s finest. (They seek him here, they seek him there, but this gentleman amateur is nowhere to be found — except perhaps by a campfire, mawkishly melting down his dead son’s toy soldiers to make bullets.) For an avowed pacifist, Benjamin is a real slugger, and for an all-too-fleeting moment the movie pauses to consider this contradiction when, having hacked an adversary to death in revenge for the cold-blooded murder of one of his kids, our hero goes on hacking until he‘s stopped in his tracks by the horror on the faces of his remaining children.
And so to the next rampage. The Patriot’s habit is to air a debate, toy with a qualm and then, all dues paid, press on regardless. For all his hand-wringing about being forced to fight, Benjamin is more a man in search of a rationale for war-making than he is a pacifist wracked by doubt. The Patriot neatly supplies him a justification as grandiose as it is intellectually daft: An independent America will somehow end up being good for his family, even though it‘s picking them off one by one.
Watching Gibson’s dizzy commute between sensitive male of a certain age and toxic avenger, one is reminded of the closing scene of Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven. In the ecstatic burst of gunfire that brought that movie to its climax, Eastwood overrode the image he had cultivated throughout, of an over-the-hill codger who had lost both the competence and the will to kill. There is vanity aplenty in that last footnote, the irrepressible egotism of a geezer who built his reputation on blood and gristle, and isn’t about to give up the glory. Yet the gesture, at once gleeful and despairing, is also a final reflection on the violence that — in life and certainly in the movies — will not go quietly away. The Patriot reflects on nothing, except perhaps that the American Revolution was a golden opportunity for Mel Gibson to go postal.