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KILT IN ACTION

If we are to believe Mel Gibson's version of thirteenth-century history--and there's not much evidence that we should--the ragtag army led by Scottish patriot William Wallace gloried in goring onrushing Englishmen with deer antlers, in bludgeoning, spearing, crushing and dismembering them. But first they mooned them.

Braveheart, Gibson's bloody (and bloody ludicrous) three-hour, $70 million epic about Wallace's supposed exploits on the battlefield and in bed features hundreds of assorted decapitations, incinerations in hot oil, impalements, throat-slashings and mass tramplings. But the movie's macho centerpiece has to be the moment when 500 or so extras throw up their dirty kilts and waggle their butts at the other 500 extras standing across the field from them at Gibson's reenactment of the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Screenwriter Randall Wallace doesn't claim to be a descendant of William Wallace, but he opines that "spirit is greater than fact." Certainly he has tailored the facts to suit Gibson, a man who seems bent on achieving some dignity beyond that accorded a major action star who's chock-full of testosterone. First he bumbled through Hamlet, then aggrandized himself as the tortured ex-teacher in The Man Without a Face. Now, directing himself for the second time, he plays Wallace as an unlikely cross between Mad Max and a University of Edinburgh don. When he's not re-enacting Lethal Weapon with a broadsword or a mace, he's parrying in Latin with emissaries of the evil English king Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) or exchanging French endearments with the Paris-born Princess of Wales (Sophie Marceau). Mel Gibson attempting such stuff is akin to Jean-Claude Van Damme discussing the symbolist poets with Sharon Stone: You expect the Monty Python troupe to spring from behind a parapet at any moment to let us in on the rest of the joke.

That doesn't happen, of course. Braveheart is romantic action heroism on the square, an elaborate revenge Western transplanted to the foggy moors of Scotland for the greater glory of Mel Gibson. As star and scenarist would have it--"history is impressionistic," the latter informs us--William Wallace was a rude commoner traumatized twice in his youth: first when his father and brother were killed in a minor uprising against their English overlords, next when an English garrison commander murdered his beautiful young wife (Catherine McCormack), a woman Wallace married in secret to avoid the quaint English custom of gang-raping Scottish brides on their wedding nights.

These horrid events stir young William to revolution, but not before wise Uncle Argyle pumps all that French and Latin into the orphaned boy. Little matter. For the next two and a half hours, Gibson yells "Freedom!" at the top of his lungs, throws his noble brunette mane all over the screen and canters around shirtless, sweaty and bleeding on the back of a horse. Single-handedly, he also kills about half the detested army of occupation. Naturally, he also recruits his own Wild Bunch, including a bearded behemoth named Hamish (Brendan Gleeson) who looks like he just climbed off a Harley-Davidson, a half-crazed Irishman (David O'Hara) who hates the king as much as the rebel Scots do and, of course, all those noble savages showing their rear ends to the English.

That sport is enjoying a general revival these days--what with The Madness of King George, In the Name of the Father and sundry tabloid exposes about the current British royals. But the others would have to go some to equal McGoohan's caricature here of the cruel and corrupt "Edward the Longshanks," or Peter Hanly's outrageous take on his foppish son, Prince Edward. Only Marceau's dazzling Princess Isabella (Eddie Jr.'s reluctant wife) redeems the English crown a bit. That's because, at least in this version, the princess understands the appeal of a real man like Wallace. It doesn't take long for them to hit the tent together in the interest of repairing international relations.

For the most part, though, Mel is content to kill and maim. With his face painted blue in the manner of a Duke basketball fan gone bonkers behind a couple of beers, William slaughters Englishmen with abandon, despite inferior weapons and constant betrayals by a dozen Scottish noblemen. History tells us that Wallace was a freedom fighter, all right, and that he paved the way for one of those compromised nobles, Robert Bruce, to eventually win Scotland's independence. But if we are to embrace Gibson's Wallace, we must believe he was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, Jesus Christ and Rambo rolled into one.

As a director, Gibson muddles and confuses his battle scenes instead of giving them shape and drama. But he sure knows how to dote on his own face. William Wallace is supposed to be a modest people's warrior, but there's nothing modest about the scores of big, blue-eyed closeups Gibson has shot of himself. By the time Wallace sacks York, impregnates the princess and gets martyred on the rack, you may be pretty sick of his noble mug: In terms of vanity, Gibson out-Streisands Streisand.

But then, despite all its pretensions to history, this is a Mel Gibson action picture. And if the man knows anything, he knows that the throngs want to see his face more often than the spear-carriers' butts, so that's what he gives 'em.

 
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