The Patriot (2000) — Mel Gibson’s The Revenger

“I have long feared that my sins would return to haunt me, and the cost would be more than I could bear.”

Justin’s rating: Oh say do you see… by the dawn’s crappy light…

Justin’s review: If I had a dollar (forget lousy nickels or dimes) for every time anticipation of a movie mounted over a seemingly perfect mix of can’t-lose elements and then managed to disappoint when finally released… shoot, I’d have enough money to make my own lackluster blockbuster like The Patriot. What’s far more regrettable than a waste of resources is that this is a supreme waste of opportunity.

The can’t-lose elements of The Patriot included: Mel Gibson, Mel Gibson fighting the British, the large scope of a war not much featured in film up to this point, and the glamorous banner of “patriotism.” But when all was said and done, even a high-profile movie about the Revolutionary War had as much to do with patriotism as blueberry flavoring has with the real fruit. A much better title for this film would be Mel Gibson’s The Revenger, because those are the only two items that interested Hollywood in the least: the brand name of Gibson, and the always-excitable theme of getting even with mustache-twirling bad guys.

For all of its 1776 setting, with the colonial armies fighting — and mostly losing — to the overwhelming British armies, director Roland Emmerich (you might remember him from such western classics like Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow) could’ve easily transplanted this story into any war at any time. The setting is just an excuse for a few recreationists and costume designers to fulfill their dreams and for the public to grossly mistake this as genuinely educational.

Absent is any larger focus of the war — why the colonials were fighting, other than petty vengeance; what Washington and his cadre were up to; what the politics were of the time — as the core center of the film is merely one psychotic bad guy with a small army going toe-to-toe with one psychotic good guy with a small army.

Emmerich’s cheeseball tactics to make his films appealing to the brainless masses are well documented. Slow motion action and swelling music for manipulating emotions. Ripping off story ideas from other, better movies and not even trying to disguise them. Giving little attention for “accuracy” and “common sense” when an opportunity presents itself to just “look cool.” And, possibly the most egregious of his sins, blatantly throwing in as many sappy family moments and historically inaccurate messages wherever suits him, whether it fits the scene or not. I have no respect for this man or his films, as the highest compliment I can give his works is that the special effects made the first viewing passable.

But only the first viewing.

The biggest fault in The Patriot is that Emmerich goes entirely too far to give his characters — Gibson and Heath Ledger in particular — motivation to fight the British. Not that I’m an expert on Revolutionary War history, but I’m pretty sure the colonials fought the British for ideals and reasons beyond “that big British meany killed my pet frog”. Mel Gibson’s character doesn’t really want to fight in the war, so he’s practically bullied into the conflict by the director staging numerous and ridiculous scenes.

[Caution: Entering Spoiler Country]

First, Gibson’s home and farm are burned, because he helped tend some wounded. Then his “freed” slaves are taken away and impressed. Then his eldest son is taken away to be hung as a spy. Then his youngest son is shot and killed for barely nudging aside a British soldier.

Then the fun really begins, as Emmerich couldn’t put brakes on the revenge machine he set up — loved ones, friends, main characters are axed right and left to provide more motivation for Gibson to fight the British and us to cheer him on. In Braveheart, Gibson merely needed the murder of his wife to wake him up to the oppression of his people and to fight from then on out. That’s it. One poignant, well-done scene, and subtle reminders from then on out of why he kept fighting.

Here, Emmerich figures that if Gibson doesn’t have someone close to him die every ten minutes, he’ll get bored with it all and wander off to play shuffleboard. I mean, for pete’s sake, you slaughter an entire town by burning them alive in a church! Was “no taxation without representation” too abstract of a concept to try to represent on screen that you had to stoop this low to get our sympathies for the colonial cause?

This was honestly the best story they could drum up for the entire scope of the War of Independence? A tale so flimsily connected to the conflict that I could easily change the setting to make it about a bunch of cops fighting a mob war in 1930s Chicago and not really lose any of the major elements?

What a mess. What a waste. “Passably entertaining, quickly forgotten.” Those will be the four words engraved on this director’s tombstone.

If anyone actually bothers to visit it to read it, I mean.

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