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The Patriot (R)
Columbia Pictures

The Patriot is a concept movie surprisingly similar to director Ridley Scott's Gladiator. The two movies uncomfortably meet in establishing a 21st-century breed of spectacle enhanced, historically referenced, yet impure--grand scale films trapped inside a dead-end capsule of Spielberg-infected dramatic flatness.

Both films run over two and a half hours long and carry a tried-and-true formula: national freedom by way of revenge over brutally murdered family members. Where retaliation films of the '70s like Bruce Lee's Fists of Fury, Death Wish, or Walking Tall kept their focus on specific communities, The Patriot and Gladiator strain to fill epic dimensions without connecting the epic requisite lineage of generations.

That's not to say that The Patriot is any less entertaining than, say, Fists of Fury, but that it is an uncomfortably smooth ride over mixed terrain of emotional posturing, flashy action sequences and cultural misrepresentation.

Onetime French and Indian War hero, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) is a recently widowed father of seven, raising his family on a South Carolina estate in the politically tumultuous year of 1776. Martin has renounced fighting in the Revolutionary War in favor of raising his family away from bloodshed. But it isn't long before fierce Republican patriotism reels Martin into the bloody fray of battle after a British regiment, led by the unmerciful Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs, Armageddon), murders of one of Martin's sons and burns his mansion to the ground.

Martin reverts to his bloodthirsty past by staging a vicious ambush against the departing regiment before taking up arms to lead a ragtag rebel militia, including his son Gabriel, into battle against the relentless English army. The story unravels through British atrocities waged against families of the militiamen before ending at the Revolutionary War's decisive battle of Cowpens where General Cornwallis was defeated by French and American forces.

Clunky script devices continually squeak and rattle throughout the movie. And the film's pitiful attempt at black and white race relation revisionism is glaring. Martin's militia harbors a token black man serving in the troop to fulfill a 12-month timeline that will grant him freedom from slavery. By watching this film for historical context, an audience gets no sense of the tensions that sent this country into civil war not so long after the end of the Revolutionary War.

During a one-week furlough, Martin and Gabriel recover from battling the English Army with their family and black slaves at a makeshift refugee camp. The former slaves wear traditional African garb and play ridiculously inappropriate Caribbean music on unseen musical instruments--except for a makeshift xylophone. The whole sequence comes off as an excuse for the filmmakers to glad-hand minorities who have spent 10 bucks to watch Mel Gibson kick some British butt.

The Patriot is a Mel Gibson movie, even more so than Saving Private Ryan was a Tom Hanks film. Both movies were penned by screenwriter Robert Rodat who bows reverently to The Patriot's leading character with radiant attention. Gibson is a perfect choice for Rodat's amalgamated war hero because he embodies a Humphrey Bogart style of acting craftsmanship that obscures things like any inkling that he could hail from the south. Gibson can perfectly walk a tightrope over any dramatic context with artless skill. In The Patriot, ex-pat Australian Gibson resembles Ronald Regean cum Christopher Walken doing a tightrope tap dance over Rodat's flawed dramatic theme: "You can't save your own family unless you are willing to put yourself on the line to save the families of all men."

There's no getting past the idea that Hollywood will be producing more post-modern genre splitting movies with lots of crowd-pleasing, over-the-top action sequences. Think Politician, or The Murderer or Bandit to come along and subvert the genres of social satire, suspense and the Western, respectively. For Hollywood, capitalist cinema has become an abstraction bereft of sex, religion or individuality beyond mob mentality, special effects-driven pap. When a cannonball flies directly toward the camera in The Patriot, you can easily see just who is the real target.

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