[box cover]

The Patriot: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs,
Chris Cooper, Joely Richardson, and Tom Wilkinson

Written by Robert Rodat
Directed by Roland Emmerich

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Review by Betsy Bozdech                    

Braveheart it ain't, but The Patriot — the action-packed Revolutionary War epic directed and produced by the guys behind Independence Day and Godzilla — definitely entertains. Sure, it got knocks from the likes of Spike Lee for more or less ignoring the plight of the colonies' slaves during the war, and you couldn't exactly call it a subtle film, but pound for pound, this Mel Gibson vehicle is a stirring saga about the struggle to create an independent American country.

The Patriot tells the story of Benjamin Martin (Gibson), a widowed South Carolina farmer who believes in independence but initially wants to avoid war with England at all costs. A veteran of the brutal French-Indian Wars, Benjamin knows how terrible combat can be and just wants to work his land and raise his seven children in peace. But after his patriotic, hotheaded oldest son Gabriel (new "It boy" Heath Ledger) enlists with the Continental Army and the Redcoats, in the form of sadistic Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), ravage Benjamin's home and threaten his family, the "hero of Ft. Wilderness" has no choice but to fight. Rather than follow the tried-and-true battle strategy of lining up in a field and shooting at an orderly line of General Cornwallis' soldiers, though, Benjamin and Gabriel call up the South Carolina militia. The rag-tag bunch of farmers and unsavory backwoodsmen wage a guerrilla war against the enemy, using mercenary-like tactics and their familiarity with the countryside to harry the Redcoats' supply lines and spook the soldiers, who soon come to believe that a mysterious "ghost" is responsible for the attacks.

While The Patriot isn't quite as complex or heart-wrenching as, say, Saving Private Ryan (which was also written by Robert Rodat), it's not nearly as fluffy as Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's usual summer popcorn movies. "I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me, and the cost is more than I can bear," Benjamin intones gravely in the film's opening voice-over; from the beginning, the audience knows that this is a Serious Movie. Yes, The Patriot definitely has its faults — some characters, like the unrelentingly evil Tavington, are far too one-dimensional, and some of the dialogue is painfully anachronistic ("May I sit with you?" Benjamin asks his sister-in-law Charlotte, played by Joely Richardson; "It's a free country — or at least, it will be," she replies). But by giving Benjamin a dark side (let's just say he didn't get his reputation as a war hero for taking prisoners) and showing Gabriel's transformation from an idealistic 18-year-old eager to go kill him some Redcoats into a battle-weary young man who, like his father, just wants to keep his loved ones safe, the film at least attempts to explore the conflicting emotions and ethics involved in any war, even the usually glorified Revolution.

It helps that Benjamin is played by Gibson, who does a first-rate acting job as the farmer and father who truly wants to leave bloodshed behind him. When a horrible tragedy finally lets Benjamin's inner demons loose, you can see stunned grief morph into resigned determination in Gibson's grim face and steely blue eyes. Like Gibson's William Wallace in Braveheart, this is a man you do not want to piss off. Loosely based on a combination of several real-life colonists/war heroes, Benjamin will probably remind most historically informed viewers of Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" who, like Benjamin, led a group of militiamen in conducting unconventional warfare against the British.

Most of the cast is quite good, actually. Ledger, an Australian, makes Gabriel's intense idealism very believable, and Chris Cooper (American Beauty, Lone Star) and Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty) perform admirably as gentlemanly generals on opposite sides of the battlefield. As the ruthless, blackhearted Tavington, Isaacs sneers his way through the movie, doing his best with a character who has no hope of redemption. And militiamen Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve) and Jay Arlen Jones play a bigoted colonist and an ex-slave, respectively, whose interactions and eventual mutual respect are meant to show that in this new country they're building, anything is possible, even racial equality. In fact, it's only the women in the movie who really aren't up to par. Perhaps that's not surprising, given that the film focuses on the male-dominated realm of war, but it would have been nice if the female characters had been more than convenient love interests. Richardson's Charlotte is plucky but always deferent to Benjamin, and newcomer Lisa Brenner's Anne Howard (Gabriel's sweetheart) is stilted, despite her winning smile.

Given its epic feel, it's only natural that The Patriot get a bang-up special-edition treatment on DVD. It's not as packed with features as Devlin and Emmerich's Independence Day, but unlike that two-disc release, all the extras on the Patriot are interesting and worthwhile. (Remember, sometimes less is more.) To start things off, there's a commentary track by Devlin and Emmerich . Since many of the special effects in The Patriot are less noticeable and flashy than those in films like ID4 and Godzilla, it's interesting to hear Devlin and Emmerich point them out and explain how and why they were used. While most of the digital stuff came in during the big battle scenes (you think they really hired that many extras?), computers were also put to good use in recreating Revolution-era Charleston, which saved the filmmakers the expense of building an extensive set. Devlin and Emmerich also chat quite a bit about the historical accuracy of the film's costumes, weapons, and battles, an idea that's explored further in the two 10-minute featurettes on the disc. Both "True Patriots" and "The Art of War" use clips from the film and interviews with cast and crew to discuss the effort that went into making sure all the movie's details were just right. Another interesting extra is the visual effects interactive featurette, which offers audio commentary by visual effects supervisor Stuart Robertson and lets the viewer see three different elements of two effects-heavy sequences (one featuring a deadly cannonball, the other digitally created soldiers) and hear what went into making each one.

The disc also includes ten galleries of still photos, seven deleted scenes with optional commentary from Devlin and Emmerich, theatrical trailers, talent files for key cast and crew members, scene selection, a four-page booklet with production notes, and about ten conceptual art-to-film comparisons, which show a detailed storyboard painting of a scene and then the finished shot. Last but certainly not least, the 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic video transfer is beautiful; the reds and blues of the soldiers' uniforms — as well as the blood stains and the dirt smudges — are bright and rich, and the picture is sharp and clear. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is great, too; when bullets and cannonballs fly in the sweeping battle scenes, every pop and thud is almost uncomfortably clear and realistic.

— Betsy Bozdech

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