Sun, 06 Aug 2000

'Gladiator' gets thumbs-up, 'Patriot' gets thumbs-down

By Joko E.H. Anwar

JAKARTA (JP): Two lengthy would-be epics are on movie screens. One is set during Roman times, the other during the American Revolution. The first is a real winner but the latter, while not exactly a loser, certainly misses the bull's-eye.

Gladiator is a grand spectacle which tells the story of the great Roman general Maximus (Russel Crowe). After winning the last battle needed to complete the Roman victory, the general opts to go home to his family.

However, dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) wants Maximus to take over from him instead of his heir Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).

Learning of the plan, Commodus orders the execution of Maximus and his family. Maximus escapes death only to be forced into slavery and turned into a great gladiator in the arena, where the spilling of blood is the only thing the callous spectators want to see.

With an opportunity to fight in the great coliseum in Rome, Maximus sets a plan to assassinate the new emperor.

Gladiator not only has superb visual style and heart-pounding battle scenes, courtesy of fight master Nicholas Powell who also choreographed the amazing battle scenes in Braveheart, but its story is well told.

Commodus does not make a very despicable villain because the evil acts he does are almost understandable, explained when Marcus says to him, "Your failure as a son is my failure as a father".

Directed by Ridley Scott, the film does, however, owe a great deal to Crowe whose emotional range and physicality have shaped a great character in Maximus which surely will be talked about for quite a long time to come. David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson collaborated on its screenplay. Melodramatic

Unlike the fully satisfying Gladiator, The Patriot often drags and tends to be melodramatic.

It could be a great war film with its lavish sets, great costumes and gripping battle scenes, but it turns into a straight revenge fantasy on a grand scale.

Screenwriter Robert Rodat, who also penned Saving Private Ryan, tried to make the drama become the center of the film, not the battles.

Unlike Gladiator, which always manages to avoid most cliches even when you feel there is no escape, the dramatic elements featured in The Patriot have already been washed out by other and better movies.

Director Roland Emerich's resume is filled with pure entertainment action films such as Independence Day and Godzilla. Unfortunately, the drama in The Patriot falls from the same heights of when aliens decided to blow up the Empire State building.

The romantic subplots also seem shallow and give us nothing to hope for.

Fortunately, there is Mel Gibson who has been in great war movies throughout his career. He was the reluctant young Australian sent off to the killing fields of Turkey in World War I in the antiwar film Gallipoli. He was a commoner turned war hero as the 13th century Scot fighting the English in Braveheart. If it also counts in the genre, he was a reluctant hero forced to step into the war zone after his family was wiped out in Mad Max.

In The Patriot, he plays a reluctant former war hero, Benjamin Martin, forced back to the battlefield after a member of his family was killed. As usual, Gibson's commanding presence delivers even if the rest of the film does not.

Martin, who made his name in the French-Indian War, who is trying to bury his violent past and settle with his family on a farm in South Carolina in 1776.

With speeches and pamphlets railing against British rule, Americans decide to take up weapons and fight their colonial lords.

Now a respected man in the community, Martin has seen the horror of war. He tries to avoid returning to fight through the excuse of taking care of his seven children after his wife died.

However, Martin's oldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), has a different opinion and joins the military.

The war is soon being fought in Martin's front yard, bringing death to his very doorstep. Martin gets back into business.

The impressive combat scenes, including when Martin and his two young sons ambush a group of British soldiers, is as intense -- and very similar -- to a scene in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans.

Unlike the characters in Gladiator, those in The Patriot are sketchily defined despite the film's length of 165 minutes.

There is a one-dimensional, utterly cruel British Army leader, Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs), as the villain, as well as the love interest played by Joely Richardson.

So is The Patriot worth seeing? Yes, just do not take it too seriously. Gladiator, however, is not to be missed.