It's finally happened: Mel Gibson has made a movie that's its own "Simpsons" parody.
Anyone who's seen the "Simpsons" episode in which Homer and Mel (voiced by Gibson in the cartoon) turn "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" into a bloody, super-macho gun-fest will see more than a passing resemblance in "The Patriot," a movie that goes over the top not just in hyperbolic violence but in overblown sanctimony and sentimentalism as corny as the Fourth of July.
Here Gibson plays an iconic figure almost as potent as Jimmy Stewart's lanky freshman congressman: Benjamin Martin is a widowed father of seven, a legendary French and Indian War hero who has disavowed violence and peacefully cultivates tobacco and builds rocking chairs on his South Carolina farm. Although Revolution is in the air, with British and Colonial troops creeping ever closer to Martin's bucolic refuge, he has maintained a neutral stance toward the conflict, and when pressed he'll admit that independence from the British isn't worth a war to him.
"I'm a parent," he explains when pressed. "I haven't got the luxury of principles."
But summer movies were never built around soft-spoken fathers and pacifists, and soon enough Martin has formed a ragtag militia of reprobates and ne'er-do-wells, joining his teen-age son (Heath Ledger) in the good fight against British oppression.
In a movie designed to present history, military tactics and ethical quandaries with all the subtlety of a Grucci Brothers fireworks extravaganza, it should come as no surprise that British oppression is embodied by the slimiest villain since Ralph Fiennes in "Schindler's List." As the bloodthirsty Col. William Tavington, whose murder of Martin's son provides the catalyst for Martin's patriotism, Jason Isaacs is an overdrawn foil to an equally improbable hero.
Gibson's character was reportedly based on a real-life man, but when it was revealed that he may have raped his slaves, among other unspeakable acts, the filmmakers distanced themselves from their inspiration. So here, we have Martin's farm tended by what look like happy slaves but who turn out to be unbelievably loyal freed men and women.
It's typical sidestepping of an issue that is obfuscated throughout "The Patriot," whose comforting revisionism is much more dishonest and damaging than anything that's sprung from Oliver Stone's imagination.
Had "The Patriot" been content to focus on the strategic mission of Martin's militia to head off Lord Gen. Cornwallis' troops, it might have been a decent historical adventure. But director Roland Emmerich - who perpetrated "Godzilla" on the movie-going public - has to be bigger, bloodier and longer than all the rest, so we are subjected to scene after scene of mayhem.
Logic is the first casualty: Martin is that rare father who, immediately after watching his son being mowed down by a British soldier, rounds up his next two youngest kids, puts guns in their hands, and leads them straight into harm's way in an extremely risky ambush.
But this Revolution has been Homer-ized, so not only does every shot fired by Martin and his boys meet its intended target, but beatific Benjamin ends the scene dripping Tory blood from every available surface.
From there, it's clear that most of "The Patriot" will simply be a two-hour-plus warm-up to the final shootout, a "Braveheart"-esque showdown in which the appalling and the absurd clash with shameless abandon.
Throughout the movie, money shots of heads being blown off and hatchets going into foreheads are lavished over, only to be justified by Gibson's primly disgusted reactions.
Viewers familiar with the "Mr. Smith" parody might recall a shot in which Mel impales a foe with the American flag; in "The Patriot" he comes dangerously close to repeating the gag, only with grim, self-important seriousness.
It's difficult to tell which is more distasteful - the cartoon Gibson making the flag into a lethal weapon, or the real-life Gibson wrapping himself in it.
Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time 167 minutes
Rated R for strong war violence
Sun score: * 1/2