As the summer’s large-scale testosterone thrillers blast their way into view with all the subtlety of Molotov cocktails, it’s worth recalling that the prototype of the modern action roller coaster, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, featured Cary Grant getting crop-dusted and dangling from the presidential nostrils of Mount Rushmore — and that the movie was able to unleash these delirious, world-spinning-out-of-control antics with elegance and wit, and with a spirit of sheer play. The same can’t be said of Braveheart or Die Hard With a Vengeance, the latest megabuck orgies of high-style machismo. Each works overtime to deliver its share of thriller bang, and each features a star who radiates all the essential qualities of a contemporary action hero: brawn, daring, a Zen cowboy ease — and, most important, the uncanny ability to look good in blood. To different degrees, though, both films tread a fine line between exhilaration and exhaustion.
Has a warrior ever looked as ecstatic about going into battle as Mel Gibson does in Braveheart? Chestnut mane streaming in the sun, face slashed by zigzags of psychedelic blue war paint (he’s as pretty as Robert Plant in his rock-god prime), Gibson plays William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish proletarian avenger who led his countrymen in a revolt against the English. Attempting to inspire his troops, he gallops back and forth, grinning like a demon and taunting the men into action. If the soldiers themselves are a trifle less enthused, it’s with good reason: Assembled across the field is the English army, a vast marching band of death. William, though, is on fire — he wants to stop these bastards — and Gibson, face lit by adrenaline, makes you feel the pulse-quickening rush of war.
He makes you feel it as a director, too. Braveheart features some of the most enthralling combat sequences in years, and the excessive ferocity of the violence is part of the thrill. This is a movie in which torsos get impaled, crotches gouged, and heads smashed like melons, each action accompanied by the savage thwack! of exploding bodily fluids. Gibson turns war into brutal poetic spectacle. The arrows fired by the English stream across the sky like choreographed flying twigs; moments later they rain down with shocking lethality. Then the Scots attack with homemade weapons, long spears that resemble giant pencils and can pierce a soldier before he’s close enough to strike. At moments like this, the blood, movement, and sheer vastness of Braveheart evoke the violent excitement you remember from movies like Alexander Nevsky and The Seven Samurai.
Then again, an epic running time is no guarantee of an epic vision, and Braveheart, at nearly three hours, doesn’t always summon the drama to match its images of medieval combat. Gibson’s William is a peasant farmer who wants nothing more than to live peacefully with his beautiful new wife (Catherine McCormack). When she is killed by the occupying British soldiers, a nasty bunch who use sexual terrorism to keep the Scottish at bay, William is transformed into a nihilist revolutionary. For him — for Scotland — it must now be liberty or death.
As long as William is inspiring his men onto the battlefield, Braveheart is stirring. But there are too many half-baked subplots: infighting between William and the Scottish nobles, the usual civilized treachery among the English (Patrick McGoohan’s King Edward I is convincingly evil without being especially colorful). Fortunately, Gibson has little to learn about showcasing his own charisma. As William, he’s an enticing mixture of sinewy heroics and studly blue-eyed dazzle. The last hour of Braveheart is a bit of a slog, but you’ll want to sit through it just to see Gibson subject himself to the splendidly masochistic executioner’s-block finale. It takes a real star to make suffering this sexy. B-