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Mad Mel's Epic Adventure

Mel Gibson puts himself on the line for Braveheart

In the 16 years since he made his screen debut, Mel Gibson has seen plenty of action. Part of what makes him so charismatic is his ability to take a licking and keep on ticking: enemies can beat him, shoot him, torture and humiliate him, but he always comes back for more, hurling hot lead, uppercuts and really awful puns.

But for all the abuse he's absorbed in the name of entertainment, Gibson has never looked as exhausted on-screen as he does right now. He's wearing a hand-tailored, three-piece Italian suit in various shades of slate, but it's wrinkled and amusingly unbuttoned in places; his close-cropped brown hair is matted; his eyes look red and puffy.

Slumped unceremoniously in a chair, head bowed at a sleepy angle, he looks less like a millionaire matinee idol than a little kid who much preferred sleeping in on Sunday to going across town to visit his hug-crazy Aunt Ethel.

He's on the road promoting his latest film, Braveheart, a $70 million medieval epic about legendary 13th-century rebel William Wallace, a Scotsman who led his countrymen in a desperate crusade to evict the occupying British. According to his itinerary, since 6 a.m. today he's done three one-hour radio shows, two TV appearances and four interviews with print journalists. Before dinner, he'll probably do a couple more print interviews. Then it's off to the airport and on to Chicago or Denver or someplace -- Gibson is too tired to remember where -- to begin again.

Gibson, who pulls down an estimated $10 to $15 million salary for each film he appears in, usually wouldn't be caught dead traveling the country, cozying up to any journalist who'll listen to his spiel. But he has too much riding on this movie to go the low-impact route, for a number of reasons. First, Gibson directed the film. Second, he's credited as a producer. Third, his independent production company, Icon, assembled half the picture's shooting budget from various foreign investors, with the other half coming from Paramount, which figured Gibson's name on anything was worth kicking in $35 million.

And last but not least, other than Mel Gibson, Braveheart has no stars. It's an exceptionally violent three-hour epic about an obscure historical rebel figure driven to vengeance and grief over the murder of his wife by British soldiers. The film is a hard sell. And its ultimate fate rests entirely on Gibson's shoulders. If it tanks, he won't be able to blame the studio, the marketing people, God, fate or the Easter Bunny. All the fingers in Hollywood will be pointing at one guy: him.

"What am I obsessing over?" he says in response to a question. "The whole thing. Every part of it. I mean, it's my reputation that's on the line, obviously. If the movie's a huge success, I get the credit, and vice versa. My name's all over this movie, so obviously, I'm under quite a bit of pressure. And yeah, I'm worried. Fuck... wouldn't you be?"

At first, William Wallace, Braveheart's hero, seems to fit handily into the gallery of heroes Gibson has played throughout his career. Like the love-struck journalist in The Year of Living Dangerously and the live-wire cop from Lethal Weapon, Wallace is a handsome, likable loner with a pub-crawling sense of humor, a flirtatious streak and a moral code buried just deep enough beneath his easygoing facade that the bad guys mistake him for a fence-sitting noncombatant.

As a child, Wallace saw his rebellious father murdered by English soldiers. He fled to Europe and saw the world beyond Scotland, studying swordplay and military tactics. He returns to his village to court his childhood sweetheart, Murron (Catherine McCormack).

As a wooer, Wallace has more in common with Li'l Abner than Don Juan. In one scene, he hides a sentimental note in a cleaning basket at Murron's family's farm and watches from a distance as she finds it. Murron scans the horizon and sees Wallace spying on her from horseback, and when she acknowledges his presence, Wallace is so happy he rears back giddily on his horse.

The good mood doesn't last long. The nefarious King Edward (Patrick McGoohan, in a sublimely wicked performance) has declared that English lords stationed in Scotland shall have "first night" rights over Scottish brides -- meaning that whenever a Scottish citizen marries another, the boss of their province gets to kidnap the bride and return her the next morning. "We'll breed them into submission," the king declares.

To foil the English, Wallace and Murron marry in secret. But the bad guys catch on, and when one of them tries to assault Murron and put English law into practice, Wallace fights back, slaying several of the king's men.

But poor Murron is murdered shortly afterward anyway, her throat slit by a would-be rapist. And Wallace the ne'er-do-well is transformed overnight into Wallace the crusader, determined to avenge his broken heart on the entire nation of England. He travels the countryside, stirring up resentment among his formerly cowed countrymen, practically shaming them into rebellion.

As narrative, the movie is competently handled, with well-drawn minor characters and an immensely complicated plot full of tangled loyalties and double-crosses that somehow never becomes confusing. Everyone in the picture is given a clear motivation for their actions, and the movie rarely forgets about any of them. Old grudges and promises keep springing up at odd moments, nudging the plot into unexpected directions.

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