A huge, bloody and sprawling epic, “Braveheart” is the sort of massive vanity piece that would be easy to disparage if it didn’t essentially deliver. Hardly lacking for ambition, Mel Gibson’s second directing effort represents an enormous marketing challenge due not only to its three-hour-length but the 13th-century subject matter and lack of marquee appeal beyond the star himself. Those factors should conspire to keep the pic from hacking its way through this summer’s pack of aspiring blockbusters, its merits notwithstanding.
There are clearly elements of “Spartacus” running through the film in tone and inspiration, from the enormous battles with thousands of kilted extras to Gibson’s William Wallace — a charismatic leader obsessed with freedom who rallies Scottish rebels against the tyrannical English king Edward the Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan).
Pic also engages in considerable court intrigue, from the forced marriage between Edward’s gay son and a French princess (Sophie Marceau, in her English-language debut), to the inner torment of Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen), one of the many Scottish lords whose feuding and avarice ultimately leave Wallace’s band to their own considerable devices.
A less notable but unavoidable comparison would be pic’s length, which does feel excessive; the film engages in one massive battle too many. There’s also a strong romantic undercurrent, but even with that, the movie is not for the squeamish, demonstrating as it does in graphic detail the brutality of hand-to-hand combat — masterfully staged sequences that nevertheless become somewhat numbing after repeated exposure to all the bludgeoning and skewering.
The story begins at a far more leisurely pace than what follows, introducing the audience to Wallace as a boy, squired off by a kindly uncle after his father and brother are killed fighting the English king.
Wallace returns a man (with flowing locks and a killer physique, reminiscent of Gibson’s look in the third “Mad Max” movie) and immediately begins wooing the radiant Murron (Catherine McCormack), secretly wedding her to avoid a barbaric law granting nobles the right to bed Scottish lasses on their wedding night.
The relationship ends in tragedy, and Wallace’s released anguish — much like the slave revolt that sets the action rolling in “Spartacus” — uncorks pent-up hostility as a growing band of rebels takes up arms against the king’s forces.
At that point, “Braveheart” turns into a muscular and brutal medieval war movie, with Wallace consistently outsmarting Longshanks’ henchmen and becoming an increasingly potent nuisance.
Gibson’s direction meanders at first but takes hold once the fighting starts, and while the movie is indeed a long sit, from that point on it’s far from boring. The battles, barring some unwelcome slow-motion shots, are spectacular, with almost balletic stunt and second-unit work all around.
The director also pulls the camera back to capture the grandeur and scope of the conflict, which, again, is diminished only through repetition. While it would have been a shame to lose some of the footage, the movie would have been better served by discussing some of Wallace’s victories rather than depicting them. The script by first-time screenwriter Randall Wallace (who bears no direct known relation to the Wallace clan) offers scant comic relief, but Gibson does a laudable job with the largely unknown supporting cast, among them Brendan Gleeson and David O’Hara as two of his chief lieutenants.
Marceau and McCormack both cut striking figures in limited femme roles amidst the carnage, while McGoohan perhaps overplays his hand slightly as the villainous king, a figure notable principally for his utter amorality.
Gibson’s central performance is also strong, and his Wallace does inspire, in both his messianic zeal and his unflinching heroism. It is notable, in light of past controversial remarks attributed to the star, that the king’s gay son (well played by Peter Hanly) is an unsympathetic character, but then again, so is virtually everyone of noble rank in the film.
Tech credits are roundly impressive, with sweeping vistas of the Scottish countryside and lavish costuming, production design and James Horner score.
With the admirable “Rob Roy” lingering in theaters, if nothing else this new wave of medieval fare could make macho men in kilts fashionable, as “Braveheart” (a catchy title never uttered in the movie) serves them up by the thousands.