Epic! Huge! Sweeping! Did we mention epic?
Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" is a stouthearted, old-fashioned hero movie in which honorable Scottish underdogs fight nasty British nobles. It lacks refinement, but it's a satisfying war story (and mediocre love story) in the grand Hollywood tradition.
It's the late 13th century (several hundred years before the time of the more-focused "Rob Roy," this year's other Scottish tale). This retelling of the legend of freedom fighter William Wallace (Gibson) begins with a lengthy prelude that reveals his grim childhood. The young commoner, whose family was killed by that pesky king called Edward the Longshanks (a steely Patrick McGoohan), leaves with an uncle to get an education. He returns to his Scottish home years later to find that the British are still being unpleasant.
The British nobles have claimed the right of "first night" -- taking a common man's bride to bed on her wedding day. When Wallace courts Murron (Catherine McCormack), the woman who comforted him when both were children, he's determined to sidestep the law. Their love has tragic consequences and, as a man with nothing to lose, Wallace fans the spark of his singular vengeance into the inferno of rebellion.
Talk about nothing to lose -- Wallace sometimes seems like Gibson's character in "Lethal Weapon," the cop with a death wish. Can anyone really be this brave, fighting both the British and the Scotsmen who betray him? He's always throwing himself and his rabble of men at the enemy in strategic attacks, resulting in some stunning battle scenes. Stunning and gory. Few audiences say "ewwww!" as much as the "Braveheart" audience did.
Add blue war paint to Gibson's face (yes, it matches his eyes), and he's a striking sight. (When you're done looking at Gibson, you can go to Druid Hill Park and see a statue of William Wallace, a 101-year-old replica of one in Scotland.)
Just when you think it's the big finale -- whoa, there's another big battle scene! Or another romantic scene with Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), or another scene with the king snarling at his pretty-boy son (Peter Hanly), or another intrigue involving Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen). Do not buy a jumbo beverage before you go in. The film is about three hours long.
"Braveheart" may not be history, since it's based on legendary accounts, but it is the purest kind of historical fiction. It's like putting on a familiar suit of armor. Sometimes it's too familiar: Gibson's rousing speech before battle sounds a lot like Shakespeare's Henry V's on St. Crispin's Day. And take the delicate princess (please!); she's straight from the giddy Maid Marian mold.
The romance that sets up the story is less than credible, too. It's expressed mainly through slow- motion smiling. Many things in Gibson's Scotland move in slow-mo, especially when battle is about to begin.
When "Braveheart" unleashes its speed, though, it's thrilling. Gibson is the reason. His film would benefit from more subtlety and tighter editing, but as both director and star, Gibson takes the story by the hilt and plunges forward, as single-minded as Wallace screaming into battle.
The supporting cast is earnest and strong, from McGoohan as the cruel king to Brendan Gleeson and David O'Hara as Wallace's loyal retainers. McFadyen (who recently played Richard Burton in the NBC miniseries "Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story"), in making his feature-film debut, gives strength to Robert the Bruce even when his character is wishy-washy.
"Braveheart's" grandiosity is enhanced by its richly textured costumes, from kilts to silks, designed by Charles Knode. Adding to the film's visual splendor is photography by John Toll, who won the Oscar for "Legends of the Fall."
James Horner's highland- flavored music heightens the medieval romance of the film. Of course, "Braveheart" is not all medieval romance. It's medieval weapons, medieval torture and medieval myth. Despite some great scenes, the movie, scripted by novelist and TV writer Randall Wallace, suffers from its own scope, the sprawl and length of it.
And how does "Braveheart" compare with "Rob Roy"? Rob fights for honor; Wallace fights for freedom; both fight for revenge. "Rob Roy" is better. But it's not nearly so BIG.
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan and Catherine McCormack
Released by Paramount Pictures
Rated R (graphic violence, nudity, language)