Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs
The Patriot starts out with a bang, but it's not cannon fire. It is the sound of Benjamin Martin's (Gibson's) rocking chair collapsing beneath him moments after he has finished constructing it—a visual cue that Gibson's widowed farmer and father of seven won't be allowed to rock into peaceful old age just yet. There is, after all, freedom to be won.
The year is 1776 and the Revolutionary War is breaking out in the colonies. Gibson, a military hero back in the earlier French and Indian War, intends to sit this one out on his farm in South Carolina. He has already seen enough violence, has his doubts about democracy ("Why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 only one mile away?" he asks) and wants to stick around to protect his young 'uns. But when the British set fire to his home and threaten two of his sons, Gibson straps on the muskets and comes out swinging his tomahawk, a souvenir from his bloody youthful conquests. He assumes leadership of a ragtag local militia, and through a series of guerrilla actions becomes a major pain in the Union Jack to the British.
For a summer movie, The Patriot is commendably ambitious. Director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla and Independence Day) and screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) have set out to show the causes and costs behind the birth of the nation and succeed surprisingly well during the film's first half. Things eventually turn clichéd and obvious (it runs a long 160 minutes), but Gibson's vigorous star turn as its conflicted hero and the well-staged, bloodily realistic battle scenes keep one's interest from flagging. Gibson is superbly assured here, a master at pairing self-deprecating humor with steely determination, a combination which serves his character well. Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You) shows promise as his strong-willed son but is saddled with too many sappy, teen-pleasing moments. (R)
Bottom Line: Nothing revolutionary but certainly rousing