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Despite its flaws, "The Patriot" is rousing red, white and true-blue entertainment.

True Colors

In a role that's far from revolutionary for the maturing hunk, Mel Gibson fights to the death for life, liberty and the pursuit of an Oscar in "The Patriot." Though he sports breeches, ponytail and musket, his citizen Benjamin Martin is really just an 18th-century take on his vengeful "Mad Max" persona. Whether he's fighting post-apocalyptic bad guys or British redcoat officers, his message is the same: Don't mess with my family.

Written by Robert Rodat, who penned "Saving Private Ryan," and directed by Roland Emmerich of "Independence Day" fame and "Godzilla" shame, "The Patriot" has many flaws. Despite being repetitious and manipulative, it is also gripping entertainment. The nearly three-hour running time flies by as you get caught up in this tale of father and son. A tale that begs the question: What would you be willing to sacrifice for freedom?

Rarely has a war seemed so personal as we watch engaging actors flesh out their broadly written characters. Even Gibson's awkward delivery seems a good fit for a man battling demons both within himself and on the battlefield. This South Carolina fighter-turned-farmer is a widower with seven children who will not fight another war. This comes as quite a shock both to his sons as well as his neighbors, for Martin was something of a wild man during the French and Indian War, notorious for one bloody act of retribution.

As a parent, Gibson shines, making us feel how torn he is when his eldest son enlists without his permission. We also share his pain when the movie's villain makes a move so heinous that it unleashes Gibson's character's need to exact revenge. The Colonial command doesn't care why Martin is back among its ranks, the group is just thankful to have him in charge of the militia.

This militia is a ragtag group, and Martin and his son Gabriel ("10 Things I Hate About You" cutie Heath Ledger) soon turn them into a burr under the well-polished English saddle of Gen. Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson). But Cornwallis is of little concern to Martin — he's after the sadistic Lt. Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs).

Like the members of Martin's band of swamp-fighting lowlanders, Tavington is written in broad strokes. He is simply evil incarnate. With that upper-crust snarl that passes for a smile, Isaacs makes his man worthy of our hisses. But as the South Carolina "irregulars" continue to wreak havoc on his supply lines and even on his own personal stash of Madeira, Cornwallis soon stops chiding Tavington for his "ungentlemanly" behavior. Instead, he unleashes hell, telling Tavington to do whatever necessary to stop Martin and his accomplices.

From Ledger on down, Gibson's supporting cast is top-notch. Though they have few scenes to call their own, each man makes his mark. Ledger is heartachingly genuine as the young man trying to understand his father while also trying to become his own man. Most of why we continue to sit mesmerized by this oversized drama stems from the believable scenes between father and son.

And while the outcome of the blood feud between Isaacs and Gibson is never truly in doubt, both actors play each scene, each confrontation and the final battle as if they had no idea how the movie ends.

From surprising moments of breathtaking beauty from the superb cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to searing moments of battlefield horror, "The Patriot" has a great deal to cheer — not the least of which is a lesson in our nation's independence that takes place far away from Boston, Philadelphia or Williamsburg. That valuable history lesson notwithstanding, "The Patriot" still falters when it comes to the essence of its title. There's very little that's patriotic until the final battle. Despite its flaws, "The Patriot" is gripping entertainment.

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