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by: James Berardinelli

Even before its world premiere, The Patriot has become the center of not one, but two, swirling controversies. Because the movie depicts children shooting rifles, it has come under fire by certain anti-gun groups. And, because the main character is a fictionalized representation of Francis Marion, who has been confirmed as a racist by historians, questions have been raised about the film's choice of a protagonist. Perhaps these two issues will add a little spark to the general release of The Patriot, because, based on content alone, there's not much to get excited about. This is a derivative and relentlessly mediocre motion picture.

To date, director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin have been involved in a trio of profitable but creatively bankrupt enterprises. All three - Stargate, Independence Day, and Godzilla - are self-styled science fiction epics that have struggled to find a minute's worth of compelling or original material. Characters have been built from stereotypes and cliches and nearly every plot development has been lifted from another film. The Patriot represents a distinct change-of-pace for Emmerich and Devlin, moving them away from space ships and giant monsters and into the realm of historical re-construction. Unfortunately, this shift of genre hasn't heralded much in the way of a storytelling improvement. The Patriot suffers from a series of potentially fatal flaws: poor character development, a lack of tension, stifling strains of political correctness, a rambling screenplay, manipulative and emotionally untrue "big moments", and wretched pacing.

During roughly the last decade, there have been a number of powerful and memorable Civil War-era films (including Glory, Dances With Wolves, and Gettysburg), but correspondingly few representations of the time of the Revolutionary War. The last major motion picture set in North America during the 1700s was 1992's The Last of the Mohicans, a rousing adventure that transpired during the so-called French-and-Indian War. Those who hoped The Patriot might finally offer a grand epic during the American Revolution are likely to be disappointed. Compared to any recent battle-drenched epic, whether it's Braveheart, Glory, Gettysburg, Mohicans, or Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot does not hold up well.

With Mel Gibson's name on the marquee, comparisons with Braveheart are unavoidable. In fact, the role of Benjamin Martin appears to be an attempt to find another William Wallace-like part for the high profile actor. Unfortunately, drenching Gibson in blood and sending him on a mission of revenge against an overwhelming force doesn't guarantee a repeat success. Braveheart was the complete package - an engrossing story filled with well realized characters and punctuated with tense, rousing battle sequences. In The Patriot, Gibson's protagonist is half developed, the storyline is poorly focused, and the battles, while produced with technical proficiency, are largely impersonal and uninteresting. If Gibson was aiming for the same bullseye he struck with Braveheart, he missed wide of the mark.

The Patriot opens in 1776 South Carolina. In the north, lightning from the storm clouds of war against the Crown have already touched off brush fires. The Colonies are calling are searching for volunteers to join the regular army. Benjamin Martin, the legendary "Hero of Fort Wilderness" and now a farmer, makes his reservations about the Revolution known in public: "This war will be fought not on some distant frontier but among us, among our homes." His patriotic son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), dishonored by his father's reticence, joins with an enthusiasm for the cause that Martin does not feel. Soon, however, an engagement occurs in a field on the Martin farm. When, in the wake of the conflict, Martin is fo


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