Benjamin Martin is an ex-soldier and a family man at the start of the American Revolution who is haunted by his past military experiences and doesn't want anything to do with the conflict. When his son is arrested and condemned to hang is forced to get involved... and thus, a hero is formed...
Gibson is arguably the only person who could shoulder this project. Of the action A-list he is the one figure who carries the necessary threat, the physical strength and the oak-aged complexity to bring Benjamin Martin - family man and warrior both - to life. Even while the movie around him tends towards sweetness and light, Gibson stays deep and dark, brutal and bloody, wielding a tomahawk with a proficiency that would make Nathaniel Poe proud. His Martin has history, is history, you feel.
The only problem is, such is the sheer space that Gibson commands, pretty much everything else is squeezed off screen. All other characters are one-dimensional at best. There are cartoon baddies (sure to annoy Daily Mail readers on this side of the Atlantic), comic sidekicks and a gaggle of impossibly pretty children who seem to have stepped straight out of Little House On The Prairie. As for Richardson, her role requires her to do nothing more than tilt her head just right to catch the sunlight.
Gibson apart, this is not a picture of nuance or gesture. Over his 160 minutes, Emmerich paints the Revolution in broad strokes - John Williams' score alone has more bombast and sugar than even George Lucas would tolerate.
Critically, however, Emmerich does deliver the big stuff: the battles, the bloodshed, the tragedy. There is some rousing action here; sure, some of it is familiar - Michael Mann's Last Of The Mohicans springs to mind - but Emmerich orchestrates his mixture of historical re-enactors and CGI warriors to stunning effect. And there are also some undeniably powerful moments - Emmerich may be shamelessly manipulating the emotions, but so long as it's a successful manipulation, who really cares? That said, over the same 160 minutes there is plenty of opportunity for Emmerich and his screenwriter Robert (Saving Private Ryan) Rodat to hit some false notes. There's an uneccessary amount of flagwaving - often literally. Racial divisions between militia and slaves are glossed over, smoothed out and generally ignored. In fact, whenever Gibson is off screen, the story loses momentum, focus and credibility. Thankfully, our Mel is never gone for long.
Mel Gibson on fine heroic form although this is full historically inaccurate period battles and a fair amount of flag-waving