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For its first hour or so, Braveheart largely avoids the stylistic discord that marred last month’s Scottish-rebellion saga, Rob Roy. Alas, this exhausting epic still has another two hours to run, hours in which the film’s escalating brutality is more than matched by its intensifying goofiness. An unappetizing mix of swoony romanticism and shots of heads being crushed by mace blows, Braveheart may test the patience of even Dances With Wolves fans.
Braveheart is a fanciful account of the insurgency of William Wallace (played by director Mel Gibson), and is set during crucial years for what was to become Great Britain, 1280-1314. At the beginning of thisperiod, Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) aggressively expanded his influence over both the nobility throughout his realm and the residents of the Celtic regions that later designated Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. William shocked Edward’s forces with a major victory at Stirling, but his military successes were shortlived. Still, by the reckoning of Braveheart scripter Randall Wallace (who claims no ancestral tie), William’s actions inspired vacillating noble Robert Bruce (Angus McFadyen) to rise against the crown. In 1314, his troops won the battle of Bannockburn, thus establishing (for a while) the independence of “Scotland” from “England.”
Those names are in quotation marks because neither country quite existed at the time. Though Gibson’s William delivers many bold speeches extolling democracy and nationalism, both would have been unfamiliar concepts. Wallace was a Celt, but as Hugh Kearney notes in The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, Edward, Bruce, and all the other nobles on both sides of the conflict were Normans. Gibson’s William establishes his breeding by addressing French-born Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) in French, which the film presents as a novelty; in fact, that was the official language of the contemporary ruling class.
Braveheart provides the expected number of historical howlers, from faces painted blue in the manner of the Picts (who actually fought the Romans a millennium before) to the notion that William’s heir, the product of a hasty union with the crown princess, ended up on the throne of England. But then this William is a hero in the customary Gibson/Costner mode: indomitable, incorruptible, and sexually irresistible—the usual Hollywood killer/lover/saint. He falls in love with Murron (Catherine McCormack) when they’re children, comes back to claim her as an adult, and after her murder wages war on the “English” in her name. Later, his mere glance turns Isabelle to jelly. (Murron, watching over her husband as a friendly ghost, doesn’t seem to mind.)
Considering Isabelle’s successful plot to overthrow her husband, Edward II, the princess was probably a bit tougher than Braveheart would have it. Of course, the movie presents Edward II (Peter Hanly) as an epicene, ineffectual gay stereotype, so that William’s impregnation of Isabelle becomes a victory not just for Celtic genes but for manliness itself. (For another view of the couple, see Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.) Though McGoohan’s Edward I is no wimp, it’s Wallace who triumphs, as yet another incarnation of Gibson’s supercompetent regular guy.
At first, Gibson musters the script’s historical implausibilities for the sake of stylized epic. William rides into town slo-mo, music thumping as in a moment from a Sergio Leone western; when the armies clash, the bodies pile up in sweeping compositions that suggest Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. In this context, even the film’s graphic depiction of battlefield violence (and later, “purification” by torture) makes some sense; the director is attempting to make palpable the grisliness of medieval combat and inhumanity of the era’s authority.
As the script gets sillier, however, the brutality becomes harder to stomach. The surfeit of severed limbs, squashed heads, and people set afire or impaled on pikes seems increasingly gratuitous as William acquires a lieutenant who talks like a medieval-Irish surfer dude and delivers inspirational lines like “I’m going to pick a fight.” Ultimately, Gibson seems to be tangling with both history and common sense—and ending up a bigger loser than William Wallace.
Bruce Willis’ John McLane takes a tip from Gibson’s “Lethal Weapon” series and acquires a bickering black partner for the latest installment of his action-film franchise, Die Hard With a Vengeance. As supercompetent regular guy McLane chases mad bomber Simon (Jeremy Irons with a wavering German accent) all over Manhattan, he must also develop a grudging (of course) friendship (of course) with Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), an electronics-store owner who makes the mistake of rescuing McLane from an angry crowd in Harlem.
Vengeance is an example of film as thrill ride, and not a bad one either. Skipping the opening credits, director John McTiernan (who oversaw the original Die Hard, but not its sequel) begins with an explosion and never stops blasting, shooting, or speeding after that. The flick emphasizes sequences that clearly exist principally for their visual possibilities (among them, a high-speed taxi rampage through the pedestrian paths of Central Park), but Jonathan Hensleigh’s script provides a suitably nonstop flow of clever complications that lead the heroes from Harlem to Wall Street to the East Village to upstate New York and beyond. Leaving aside the laws of physics and the sketchy motivations of Simon and his crew (including singer Sam Phillips as a mute psychokiller), this trajectory has a certain logic.
That’s the logic of the thrill ride, which promotes intense but limited human emotions. The muddled ideology of Irons’ supposedly East German character excluded, the movie is virtually without content. Zeus is introduced while delivering a righteous anti-white message to two neighborhood schoolchildren, but amid all this chaos and carnage his racial politicking actually plays as one of the film’s lighter touches. Zeus is here to learn something, but it’s not tolerance for white people—it’s how to be a wisecracking daredevil, a colorblind Hollywood ideal. Vengeance again alerts us to the post-Cold War villain dearth, but as long as there are heroes who can deliver self-effacing one-liners as they dance their way through machine-gun fire, it hardly matters who’s shooting at them.
Understandably, the old Casper cartoons never raised the disturbing matter of their hero’s previous existence. Hollywood’s new Casper, however, finally reveals how the friendly ghost died. In fact, this high-tech update of the well-meaning little apparition (whose voice is provided by Malachi Pearson) earnestly addresses just the sort of life-and-death issues the cartoons carefully avoided. The result is not spooky, but is altogether ooky.
That’s appropriate, since Casper is modeled on The Addams Family to the extent of starring Christina Ricci (who played Wednesday Addams) in the film’s leading non-ectoplasmic role, Kat Harvey. (Harvey is the name of the comics publisher that owns the rights to Casper.) Kat’s the daughter of a shrink (Bill Pullman) who treats “the living impaired” in the hope that he’ll discover the shade of his dead wife; father and daughter end up at Whipstaff Manor, an abandoned mansion in Maine, after the new owner (Cathy Moriarty) and her flunky (Eric Idle) find the place haunted by Casper’s three seemingly malicious uncles, Stretch, Fatso, and Stinkie.
Casper’s there too, of course, and when Kat arrives he’s smitten; the sexual tension between them is just the first incongruous development in a film that maintains (while modernizing digitally) the image of Casper as small, big-headed, and blobby—that is, a baby. (It turns out that Casper was 12 when he died, and if he’s no William Wallace, he clearly considers himself man enough for Kat.)
Despite the snazzy special effects and the appeal of Kat and Casper, this is one of those attention-deficit movies that tries a bit of everything. Director Brad Silberling and writers Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver (all TV veterans making their big-screen debuts) enlist Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Dan Aykroyd, Rodney Dangerfield, and Father Guido Sarducci for cameos, and include such teen-flick staples as the evil, stuck-up blond girl. This movie has a thrill-ride sequence too, one derived from The Addams Family, and ends with Little Richard rocking the Casper theme.
All this pales next to the weirdest sequence, which grapples awkwardly with issues that can only be called theological. It’s possible that Casper can be reborn and that Kat’s father will die, and that Kat’s dead mother will drop in for a reassuring visit. There’s a place for such after-life speculations, but Casper fails to demonstrate that a kiddie semicartoon movie, even a PG-rated one, is it. Even if the life-and-death stuff is a strange miscalculation, though, bored chaperones may be grateful for the diversion. Without it, there’s really nobody home at Whipstaff Manor.