Skip to main content

The trouble with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots.

Braveheart
(1995)

(SPOILERS) With some Best Picture Oscar winners, it's difficult to conceive the precise conflation of circumstances that compelled Academy members to plumb for a particular contender. So it is with Mel's ridiculous medieval martyrdom epic. My objections to Braveheart, however, aren't to do with its historical inaccuracies, be it the woad, the plaid, the facts of William Wallace's life, or the Battle of Stirling Bridge not taking place on a bridge; with the biopic (in its loosest sense), fidelity tends to fall away as a source of vexation if the overriding content passes muster. The problem with the picture is that it simply lacks the sensibility to fill the shoes it clearly wants to; if Eastwood's passage to director takes in the Siegel tradition, Gibson's goes via the Lethal Weapon route.


Which is a shame, as Mel's a much more talented filmmaker than Clint. But where the latter directs with reserve that sometimes verges on indifference (or torpor), Gibson cannot hide his passion for his material, and with projects like this or the recent Hacksaw Ridge – ironically, or tellingly, also nominated for Best Picture – tends to overspill into shameless melodrama, clodden clichés and brazen audience manipulation. The result is the most audience-baiting of '90s winners this side of Titanic (with which it shares a gag-inducingly evocative Celtic-tinged score from James Horner, apparently one of the best-selling soundtracks ever). It makes me think Gibson should stick to foreign-language movies going forward, as whatever I may think of The Passion of the Christ (not a lot) or Apocalypto (a near-masterpiece), there's a coherence to them that comes from a focus on visual storytelling rather than the slackening of grip that seems to ensue when characters are able to indulge overt, and corny, emoting.


Maybe Mel shouldn't have played Wallace (he had to really to get financing, and even then, it was a struggle). As soon as he made the decision, he brought the baggage of his star persona. It's not that he can't fit well enough into a period piece, in the the way Chuck Heston does in Ben-Hur or Kevin Costner does in Dances with Wolves; it's that by this point, he inevitably moulds it around that persona (compare and contrast with Gallipoli). So Walllace is now a designer Scotsman by way of Thunderdome with an uber mullett to match (the same one he has as a kid – no wonder Wallace grew up with such attitude, having to carry such a horrifically-coiffured burden on his shoulders all those years). At times with such accompanying laddish abandon, there's a feeling this is not so far from a very violent, thirteenth-century Police Academy, with Mel in the cheeky Steve Guttenberg role and Patrick McGoohan as Lieutenant Harris, taking exception to his disrespectfulness.


With that kind of sensibility, the reveal that Wallace, very much the man of the people and not the nobleman Wallace actually was, is also a cultured man of the people (and an artist to boot), one versed in Latin and French, who has even been to Rome, so as to show up those snooty, snotty English, is simply very, very cheesy (the cumulative effect is one of Bruce Willis in Hudson Hawk when he orders a menu item in perfect Italian before asking "Oh, and bring me a bottle of ketchup, will ya?" but minus the wall-to-wall irreverence for everything). Wallace also wants the quiet life ("If I can live in peace, I will") until poor dear Murron (Catherine McCormack) has her throat slit by the English bastards (Mel's determined to make you hate the English even if you are English).


At times, Gibson's so sincere, his approach verges on parody, such that dream sequences pock the narrative in very literal fashion, one of which segues into a silly bit where he rides a horse into Alun Armstrong's bedroom and then leaps into a moat; it's designed to feed into Wallace the myth, but because it's depicted as actually happening, there are times you half wonder if you're watching The Princess Bride. Then there's the – surprise, surprise – repetitive Christ imagery, from Wallace raising his hands (before raising a sword), to being dragged through the streets and spat on, to being tied on a cross board (before being thoroughly emasculated). 


So what's there to like about Braveheart? Well, you can't make any headway at all without first making a caveat, but McGoohan – let's not forget Mel was considering a big screen The Prisoner at one point – hoodwinks you into believing you're in a much better film whenever he appears, despite a fake hooter that occasionally looks like it's in competition with Peter Sellers' dentist disguise in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (an Academy Award for Best Make-up right there). 


Yes, his King Edward I is a two-dimensional Disney villain, and much of his time is spent disapproving of his son (Peter Hanley), a stereotypical mincing queen despite Mel's protestations that he wasn't being homophobic, honest. But he's such a splendid rotter, you can't help but experience the picture meeting its full cartoonish potential whenever he opens his mouth. Apparently, Gibson was bewildered that anyone would find Edward's murder of his son's lover funny, but you don't have the king establishing a setup of "Then tell me, what advice would you offer on the present situation?" before delivering the punchline of throwing Phillip (Stephen Billington) out of the nearest window before he gets to answer if you don't intend it to be funny; I bet Mel laughed his socks off in the editing room on every single playback). 


CommanderI beg your pardon, sire. Won't we hit our own troops?
Edward IYes, but we'll hit theirs as well. We have reserves. Attack.

There's an – how intentional, it's hard to assess – Alan Rickman quality to the villainy here (it was only four years since Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). McGoohan quickly becomes the droll spur that hastens the proceedings, and it's highly enjoyable watching Longshanks storming into any scene in utterly unreconstituted fashion, whether it's insulting the Scots, the Irish (McGoohan's resigned "Irish…" when they change sides on the battlefield is perfection), the opposite gender ("That's what happens when you send a woman" he scoffs of Sophie Marceau's Princess Isabelle giving away the gold), or his blasé attitude to casualties among his own men. And he kind of wins, even if it's on his death bed, so if you're on board with McGoohan's performance, Braveheart almost has a happy ending.


Also on the plus side, even at this early stage in his directorial career, Mel's grasp of action choreography – he had good tutors in the likes of George Miller, Peter Weir and Richard Donner – is very impressive. Perhaps more so with the smaller scale catharsis of avenging the loss of Murron than later battle scenes, but he knows what he wants, and what he wants is viscera (although, having said that, there are a surprising number of obviously under-connecting blows in the picture).


The cast are mostly very good too. William's broadly colloquial camaraderie with his men 
is very watchable, thanks to the likes of Brendan Gleeson (who, incredibly, looks quite young), Brian Cox (who also managed to star in that year's other historical Scottish epic, Rob Roy), David O'Hara (as the Mad Irishman caricature – although all the characters are caricatures, so he's just one that stands out as wacky), Tommy Flanagan and Peter Mullan.


There's also Ian Bannen in some dodgy leper makeup (remember that Academy Award?) as Robert the Bruce's duplicitous father, and the Bruce himself (Angus Macfadyen – apparently, a sequel is planned with Macfadyen reprising his role). The Bruce is an intriguingly conflicted character, but Macfadyen never really has a chance to dig into him – all Mel really wanted was to cast someone who comes across as a bit weedy, because Wallace is all man.


In general, Braveheart doesn't have the vision, poetry or mythmaking of a true epic; it's rough and ready in tone, the aforementioned Lethal Weapon in a period setting and on a broad canvas, not even Peckinpah-esque in relishing the queasy beauty of violence. Mel's charm is very contemporary, and he doesn't shrug that off for something immersive, probably consciously, irrespective of the other anachronisms. What you’ll remember are the limbs being hacked, genitals sliced, buttocks pierced and skulls caved in. And hanging, drawing and… well we didn’t get to see the quartering. And that Mel may as well have got Rowan Atkinson as the battlefield nobleman who meets a nasty end, so risibly chinless is he. He really doesn't like those English.  You'll remember Mel's impassioned imploration for freedom, of course, and his supreme sacrifice for nationalism and shrugging off the English yolk. What you won't encounter is coherence over and above the grisly moments and odd rousing speech; even that other actor-turned-director Costner, in his much derided (latterly) Best Picture Oscar Winner Dances with Wolves, had that.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

What if I tell you to un-punch someone, what you do then?

Incredibles 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Incredibles 2 may not be as fresh as the first outing – indeed, certain elements of its plotting border on the retread – but it's equally, if not more, inventive as a piece of animation, and proof that, whatever his shortcomings may be philosophically, Brad Bird is a consummately talented director. This is a movie that is consistently very funny, and which is as thrilling as your average MCU affair, but like Finding Dory, you may understandably end up wondering if it shouldn't have revolved around something a little more substantial to justify that fifteen-year gap in reaching the screen.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Well, in this case, the cats are going to kill the curious.

The Avengers 5.8: The Hidden Tiger
Another of the season's apparent run-on ideas, as the teaser depicts a character's point-of-view evisceration by aggressor unknown. Could this be the Winged Avenger at work? No, it's, as the title suggests, an attacker of the feline persuasion. If that's deeply unconvincing once revealed, returning director Sidney Havers makes the attacks themselves highly memorable, as the victims attempt to fend off claws or escape them in slow motion.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…