In 1776 South Carolina, widower and legendary war hero Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) finds himself thrust into the midst of the American Revolutionary War as he helplessly watches his family torn apart by the savage forces of the British Redcoats. Unable to remain silent, he recruits a band of reluctant volunteers, including his idealistic patriot son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), to take up arms against the British. Fighting to protect his family's freedom and his country's independence, Martin discovers the pain of betrayal, the redemption of revenge and the passion of love.
Aimed directly at a mainstream audience, The Patriot qualifies as respectable entertainment, but anyone expecting a definitive drama about the American Revolution should look elsewhere. Rising above the blatant crowd pleasing of Stargate, Independence Day, and Godzilla, director Roland Emmerich crafts a marvelous re-creation of South Carolina in the late 1770s (aided immeasurably by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), and Robert Rodat's screenplay offers the same balance of epic scale and emotional urgency that elevated his earlier script for Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, Emmerich embraces clichés and hackneyed melodrama that a more gifted director would have avoided. Instead of attempting a truly great film about the most pivotal years of American history, Emmerich settles for a standard revenge plot with the Revolutionary War as an incidental backdrop.
On those terms, the film is engrossing and sufficiently intelligent, especially when militia leader Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) cagily negotiates with British General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) in one of the most rewarding scenes. For the most part, the story concerns Martin's anguished quest for revenge against ruthless redcoat Colonel Tavington (played with snide relish by Jason Isaacs), and the rise to manhood of Martin's eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), whose battlefield honor exceeds even that of his brutally volatile father. At its best, The Patriot conveys the horror of war among innocent civilians, and the epic battle scenes, while by no means masterful, are graphically intense and impressive. And although Ledger's love interest (Lisa Brenner) is too bland to register much emotion, the focus on family (which frequently relegates the war to background history) provides a suitable vehicle for Gibson, who matches his achievement in Braveheart with an effectively brooding performance. --Jeff Shannon