Ever since Al Pacino became trapped in the hideously snooze-inducing Revolution, the American War Of Independence has been avoided by film-makers terrified of repeating Brit helmer Hugh Hudson's mistakes. And it's taken a German director, Roland Emmerich, to risk Sony's mega-bucks on another stab at the conflict. Perhaps after annihilation-mad aliens and skyscraping lizards, coping with a mad English king seemed like a breeze - especially since Emmerich managed to bag Mel Gibson, star and director of his own battle-ravaged independence drama (Braveheart).
The result is hokum, but at least it's good-looking hokum, featuring some gorgeous cinematography. And, with enough battle mayhem to keep action fans sitting upright for most of its lengthy running time, even Joely Richardson's reply to Gibbo's request to sit next to her - "It's a free country... Or at least it will be" - doesn't sound that painful.Carnage is the order of the day. Mel Gibson's French-Indian war hero may be trying pacifism on for size at the start of the film, but he has a history of vengeance-seeking dismemberment and savagery from the earlier conflict that'd make Martin Riggs proud. And it all comes in handy after his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) signs up for the Continental army opposing the Brits.
With the prospect of a sadistic English colonel (Jason Isaacs) spilling his family's blood, it's not long before Martin gives in to his Lethal Weapon instincts and straps on those flintlocks again. Before you know it, he's rallying a militia of scruffy homesteaders who hit the Redcoats with brutal guerrilla-style ambushes.
Whether it's re-enactments of crazily formal marches or sneaky militia strikes, The Patriot's action sequences are fantastic, veering from brisk and exhilarating Hollywood slickness to terrifyingly gruesome recreations of old-style battlefields. Add a ponytailed Gibson in hard-charging slo-mo, and you've got a fierce crowdpleaser with serious oomph. Elsewhere, young Aussie actor Ledger proves he's much more than just cheery girlbait suitable for the likes of 10 Things I Hate About You: here he carries a gravity few of his photogenic teen peers could ever match. Isaacs, meanwhile, is a snivelling guilty pleasure, eager to turn his sadistic Green Dragoon warrior into the true founding father of evil Brits in American action films.
With Gladiator reviving moviegoers' lust for gore-heavy, irony-free heroic epics, there's no reason why The Patriot can't keep the same flag flying at the multiplexes. Sure, it goes for all the big issues - democracy, defending the home, important ideals, blah-de-blah-de-blah - but it's the shots of cannonballs tearing people's heads off that really hit the target.