|Patriot, The (Special Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Sunday, 24 October 2004|
You have to hand it to director Roland Emmerich. The guy really knows how to stage a battle scene. Whether it’s U.S. Army types blasting the heck out of intrusive extraterrestrials in "Independence Day" or Colonial militia going toe-to-toe with the Redcoats in "The Patriot," when Emmerich gets down and dirty with combat, our attention is well and truly held. However, he doesn’t seem to be sure what temperature to set for the calmer sections.
In "The Patriot," Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a widowed and loving father of seven children in South Carolina in 1776. The winds of war are blowing hard as the American colonies call for rebellion against England. Ben wants no part of the conflict – once a famous fighter, he is now disgusted by battle and simply wants to raise his family in peace. However, Ben’s oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) joins the militia against Ben’s wishes. Eventually, the war comes straight to the Martin doorstep (literally). Ben winds up having to shed blood – lots of it – to rescue a family member, and by the time he’s done, he’s caught up in the fighting after all, emerging as a genius at guerilla warfare. The untrained colonials would seem to be no match for the better-armed and better-prepared British forces, but the rebels have some great leaders …
It’s clear that director Emmerich and writer Robert Rodat are dead serious about their subject – so serious that they sometimes slip into melodrama and self-parody without realizing it. Rodat, who also wrote the meticulously researched "Saving Private Ryan," crams as much history as possible into "The Patriot," which is largely a good thing. He tries to provide us with enough background, context and detail for us to understand the implications of what’s going on beyond the immediate action.
Although most epics benefit from playing on a large screen, it has to be said that flaws in "The Patriot" are flatteringly minimized in the home venue. The filmmakers often display a poor ear for period dialogue and some of their actors don’t display much skill at speaking it either. On the other hand, some of the actors are extremely well chosen. Gibson is a stirring figure who gives a fine performance – if anyone can convince us that he’s almost single-handedly capable of winning a nation its freedom while wrestling with his own mental anguish and physical agony, he’s the man for the job. The excellent Jason Isaacs and Tom Wilkinson, as the chief English antagonists, are likewise potent and involving on the big screen. However, some of the other acting, which seemed either too bland or too much in the theatre, appears better modulated on the DVD.
While a bit of slow motion helps to emphasize certain moments within an action sequence, Emmerich pushes this technique into overkill, failing to take into account that some facial expressions look downright silly when shown forming bit by bit. The battlefield violence here for the most part has greater impact when it plays at full speed. Eerie sections when the two conflicting forces approach each other at a measured walk, nearly the killing ground step by step, are heartbreakingly dramatic in real time and provide striking contrast to the dizzying speed of the ferocious fighting that follows. Slowing the footage down artificially undercuts the emotional effect of the transition from men walking quietly to falling in the roar of rifle and cannon fire.
The sound on "The Patriot" DVD is sterling, starting with an unusually clear and firm – one might even say muscular – center channel that consistently keeps the dialogue audible and intelligible while anchoring it within the sonic environment. Audio effects are also marvelous, making expert use of the rears, with so many highlights that listing them all would require a small book on the subject. In Chapter 3, subtle cannon booms are calibrated to have heft while still insisting on distance; these battle noises segue into louder, more directional impacts in Chapter 4. Chapter 6 has notable footfalls and running sounds that carry the characters through the sonic environment, giving them physical position throughout. Chapter 7 has gunshots that start in the mains and travel convincingly into the rears and vice-versa, depending on who’s shooting at whom, and has a startlingly meaty tomahawk hit. Chapter 8, which depicts the film’s first full-on battle, cranks up the subwoofer to add maximum effect to both the firing and impact of the various heavy weapons.
Chapter 14 puts us in the midst of a crowd, with voices in the rear crisp and precisely placed. Chapter 16 has more excellent directional gunfire coming from all the speakers, along with capturing the specific texture of swords sliding from sheaths and the jarring thud of hoofbeats. In Chapter 24, a gunshot ricochets all the way through the system in a manner that makes the listener want to duck. Chapter 25 again makes full use of the 5.1 system, with shouts and the click of guns cocking all around and a mighty cannon hit that enlivens the subwoofer.
The special features are mostly good, though the split menu for them is a little annoying, as the arrow leading to the second special features menu is virtually disguised as a graphic, placed above rather than within the first menu. (For those seeking it, it is on the right-hand side of the screen, just above the menu banner.) The audio commentary track by director Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin is cheerfully informative; the soundtrack is on throughout and returns to almost normal volume whenever the two men pause in their remarks. Deleted scenes have an unusually good sound mix for footage that didn’t make the final cut. There are two making-of shorts that are a little more about "The Patriot" and a little less about their putative subjects than the titles would suggest. The featurettes on the digital effects are very intriguing as far as they go; I gave up trying to figure out the command that would make them proceed past a certain point.
"The Patriot" is ultimately a crowd-pleaser. No matter how unlikely or maudlin the film becomes in patches, the scope of the story, the intensity of the fights – for swordplay lovers, there’s a doozy of a duel between Gibson and Isaacs in Chapter 26 – and the force of Gibson’s personality keep us engaged.