Mad Mel's Epic Adventure

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.

The film isn't especially complex or disturbing; despite its oceans of gore, it's a surprisingly old-fashioned epic adventure. It has scope but not depth, mostly because once Wallace's bride is murdered, he becomes an angel of vengeance. Whatever subtle shadings the character possessed before are incinerated in the furnace of his rage.

The picture remains gripping because Gibson, possibly the most intensely physical actor in English-language cinema, acts as an emotional eye for the picture's hurricane of action. Charging on foot or on horseback, swinging a giant, bloodstained broadsword, shrieking inhuman taunts through a face smeared with war paint, crashing through enemy phalanxes and leaving hacked limbs in his wake, William Wallace is positively demonic -- a force of nature enthralled by his own agonized bloodlust. His masklike face tells his men what kind of life they're in for if they fail to beat the English: it says, Follow me or you'll end up like me.

The cinema has produced a number of terrific large-scale battle sequences, but at their very best they're lucky to touch the hem of Braveheart's kilt. There are thousands of extras on-screen during some of the sequences, and they employ complex tactics that a lazy director might not have bothered to elucidate. But Gibson lays everything out with such precision and economy that you always know which side is which, who's winning and who's losing, and where everyone is in relation to their enemies.

Not that the film treats combat as an intellectual exercise; far from it. Few films have so indelibly captured the horrific exhilaration of war. The Battle of Stirling -- the film's visceral centerpiece -- is simultaneously ecstatic and frightening. When the English unleash a flock of arrows, the camera follows them as they arc high over the battlefield, streaking toward the Scottish soldiers, who crouch down and hoist up their makeshift shields and pray. Then the English horsemen charge, and Wallace's men are instructed not to evade them, but to wait until the last possible second, then lift up long spears to impale the horses and riders.

But even during moments of terrifying grandeur, Gibson's perverse sense of humor never disappears. At the start of the Battle of Stirling, Wallace and his men taunt the prim English soldiers by mooning them; as the men flip up their kilts, the screen fills up with jiggling genitals and asses. It's Antietam meets Animal House.

During quieter moments, Gibson's touch is less confident. He pulls off a few lovely close-ups, and he gives his supporting cast plenty of memorable scenes and lines and lets them create fully rounded characters. But he fudges a few choice moments -- particularly the hero's furtive tryst with a French-reared English princess (Sophie Marceau), which makes narrative but not quite emotional sense, and the finale, in which Wallace dies a martyr's death by undergoing three different forms of ghastly torture, each of which is portrayed in excruciating detail.

The latter sequence ought to rise to heights of awful, soul-wrenching grandeur, but instead it's merely unpleasant. And it smacks of directorial privilege. It's as if Gibson was so addled by his duties as star, director and producer that he lapsed into some kind of bizarre persecution complex, became convinced that audiences weren't appreciating how hard he was working to entertain them, and decided to punish them visually for taking him for granted.

As his scrappy, muscular little frame is hung by the neck and stretched on a rack, we seem to be witnessing the ultimate example of Christlike posing by an actor/director. Eastwood, Stallone and Costner have pulled this stunt, too -- sometimes more than once in the same film -- and whether it's justified by the screenplay or not, it always seems more self-indulgent than enlightening. As sensible and entertainment-oriented as he is, you'd think Gibson would know better.

In a peculiar sense, though, Gibson, more than almost any other star-turned-director, has earned the right to celebrate his own cinematic immolation. He seems to belong to an earlier era -- an era that celebrated testosterone-stoked movie heroes such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and John Wayne. As a filmmaker, he's all meat-and-potatoes; he likes his stories and emotions simple but big, he likes to play to the balcony and he likes the good guys to win. If he ever plans to try something experimental, it won't be for a while. For now, he wants to make entertaining stories. And as he notes, "some of 'em are gonna be good and some of 'em might be shitty." Though not near perfection, Braveheart is surely on the good side of that ledger.

Braveheart. Directed by Mel Gibson. With Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan and Catherine McCormack. Rated R. 170 minutes.

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