Saturday, 21 June 2008

The Patriot (1998)

Seagal may be unstoppable in combat, but there is
one thing he can't fight... macular degeneration

1998's The Patriot is the third film in what I like to call Seagal's green movement, following On Deadly Ground in 1994 and Fire Down Below in 1997. These three films combine environmentalism and various forms of Eastern and Native American mysticism into what is as close as we can reasonably expect to a Billy Jack sequel. These films are pretty interesting, since action films, when they're political at all, are usually the domain of the right-wing. Themes of pacifism and environmentalism don't gel easily with violent action, so the results are usually a hilarious and highly entertaining failure. The first two films went over like a fart in a church and by 1998 Seagal's box office draw had dropped severely, necessitating the release of this film Direct-to-Video (the first of many to come).

The first think you notice about this film is that it's got some nice cinematography, courtesy of Director Dean "Mad Max 2" Semler. Lots of sweeping, Western-style wide shots. This film was made on and around Seagal's own ranch, so I like to think it's an accurate portrayal of his everyday life. Roping cattle, healing sick animals with his own "home-cooked jungle juice" (presumably Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt energy drink), all in a day's work for Steven Seagal aka Dr Wesley McClaren. He lives on the ranch with his daughter Holly (Camilla Belle) and crusty cowhand Frank (L.Q. Jones). He also has a doctor's surgery in town where he provides medicine, both Western and homeopathic, to the citizens of Ennis, Montana. He even accepts blackberry pies and carpentry services as payment, which I will definitely be trying on the next visit to my GP.

Unfortunately, Seagal's ranch is adjacent to a crazed militia, who are embroiled in a tense stand-off with the FBI. Reluctant to see another Waco in the papers, the FBI holds back while the militia leader, Floyd Chisolm (Gailard Sartain), lectures his followers about how the country has gone down the crapper etc. The stand-off comes to an abrupt end when Chisolm suddenly surrenders. He is taken to court where he defends his right to stockpile sawn-off shotguns in his backyard and so forth. If this film were made ten years earlier he'd probably be the good guy, but this is a Seagal film, so he spits in the judge's face and is taken to prison. What nobody knows is that Chisolm has deliberately infected himself with the deadly virus NAM-37, and intends to infect as many people as possible. I know this doesn't sound very patriotic but I think the title is one of those ironic type deals, back before it was illegal to question the merit of blind patriotism.

Luckily Seagal is also best virologist in the country, retired from the CIA after he discovered the government was stockpiling the deadly virii he was researching. Seagal reluctantly calls in his old colleagues to help combat the infection, but the virus has mutated and the antidote they provide proves to be useless. There is hope, however, in the form of Seagal's daughter Holly who has an immunity to effects of the virus. Seagal is also immune but this goes unnoticed by everybody, including himself. When the militia discover that she is immune, Seagal must escape and find a cure before the virus can spread. He dumps his daughter at her Blackfoot Indian grandfather's place, which allows Seagal to trade the bits of vague mysticism that always crop up in his films ("Chasing knowledge is like chasing deer. You must allow knowledge to find you.") and pick up Dr. Ann White-Cloud, an expert botanist and thus a handy lab assistant.

Now, some may consider the country's top ex-CIA virologist living next door to the source of a massive viral outbreak to be a ludicrous coincidence, but the fact that Seagal also lives near a top secret DARPA viral research lab makes me wonder if Seagal had really retired at all. I mean, think about it, maybe it was all part of his plan, just biding his time until the inevitable viral outbreak he'd always feared. Anyway, Seagal uses the awesome powers of his 1998 desktop PC to forge a security access pass. For some reason he's got his software set up and ready to go to produce phony IDs for DARPA, the CIA, FBI etc, which lends further evidence to my theory. Once he gains access to the underground lab he discovers a skeleton crew of half a dozen soldiers, all of them infected with the virus after some training exercises topside. Fat lot of good the level-4 containment facility does now, you jackasses!

With the soldiers dropping like flies, it's time for an explosive finale... of science! Beakers, test tubes and bunsen burners are all employed in this white-knuckle action thrill-ride. It all reaches a white-hot climax when Seagal trashes his lab in frustration, only to discover the source of the immunity right in front of him... the flowers in the herbal tea they were drinking! (This is a spoiler, so don't read the previous sentence.) As Seagal says earlier in the film: "[Western medicine] is in the business of prolonging illness, I'm the business of curing it." Take that, science! It's stupid, but it does provide the spectacle of army helicopters raining flower petals on an infected populace. It would probably be more convenient for the townspeople if the flower petals were distributed in discrete packages, but not nearly as heavy handed a poetic device.

Seagal was beginning to bloat up by this stage, which they try to cover with baggy shirts, even some of the Chinese style silk numbers he is fond of these days. He mumbles his way through lackluster dialogue (sometimes I really wished that the bare-bones DVD had subtitles), but this is from the early days of Direct-to-Video so he really seemed to be making an effort. The film looks damn good for Direct-to-Video, but the reduced budget means fewer action sequences. In fact, the whole film is more of a viral thriller, along lines of Outbreak. Seagal busts a few heads and even stabs a guy in the neck with the stem of a wine glass (no gout of arterial blood, big oversight) but the thrills (such as they are) are generally derived from Seagal's race against time.

This film has probably been seen by about eight people worldwide, all of whom picked it up by accident instead of Roland Emmerich's 2000 film The Patriot starring Mel Gibson. I would definitely like to see the alternate universe version of that film with Seagal in the lead role. There would be a lot more British soldiers getting their necks broken and tossed through windows, that's for sure. What about that line that was in all the trailers "Before this war is over, I'm going to kill you." "Why wait?" Tell me that line doesn't sound like it was generated by whatever computer they use to make Seagal's scripts. Anyway, until the shot-in-Romania Direct-to-Video remake of The Patriot (2000) starring Steven Seagal as Mel Gibson, we will have to be satisfied with The Patriot (1998) starring Steven Seagal as Steven Seagal.

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