The Patriot (1998)
Things have became a little more egalitarian lately, but there used to be a rigid hierarchy amongst American movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Good movies, and/or movies that people might actually want to see, were released into movie theaters and given ample promotion budgets for things like trailers, TV ads, newspaper ads, etc. Crappier, schlockier, cheaper movies were released directly to VHS or DVD — the thinking being that people who are going to pay $7-$10 to see films on 40-foot screens were more discerning than those spending $2 at Blockbuster. (The third rung was made-for-TV movies, which I won’t even dignify by mentioning.) So, when a movie such as The Patriot was released directly to DVD, it was a realization and a confession on behalf of the funding studio: no one wants to watch this, so we’re not going to waste any more money on it.
It’s easy to see why The Patriot was given this treatment. It really sucks. It’s confusing and illogical not in the amusing way The Glimmer Man or Hard to Kill were, but in a profound, overwhelming, depressing way. It’s clear not a single person working on this movie gave a crap. It also has a shockingly blatant left-wing agenda guaranteed to irritate at least 50% of this ever-polarized nation. Worst of all, it’s almost wholly devoid of any action. Steven Seagal literally spends less than 30 seconds beating people up (yes, I counted).
Before I mention the movie’s plot, let’s start by discussing something far more interesting: Steven Seagal’s hair. The ponytail returns sporadically, but Seagal has a few new hair-dos he wants to show you. He has this one look where he slicks his hair down flat on the top, but puffs and curls it in the back. This is 1998, keep in mind, long after the mullet had ceased to be a cool (or even acceptable) haircut for anyone outside of a trailer park or Spanish soccer team. At another point in the film he puts his hair in a bun.
It’s worth noting that Seagal’s three hairstyles are interchanged frequently in the movie, even amidst great emergencies, meaning Seagal is taking time out from saving the world to delicately and elaborately style his hair. At one point, his hairstyle even switches when he’s camping out in the desert, so I guess he has either a hairdryer that runs on batteries or an incredibly long extension cord.
The movie opens, just as On Deadly Ground and Fire Down Below did, with scenic shots of nature and animals looking majestic. So, you might guess, this movie is once again going to feature nature getting into trouble and Steven Seagal coming to its rescue. Over the shots of elk and birds and shit, the opening credits role and the cast features names such as Whitney Yellow Robe and Leonard Mountain Chief, which is a sign to Seagal regulars that we’re in for at least one speech about how Native Americans are brave and misunderstood.
You’re probably assuming that the movie’s title refers to Steven Seagal, but amazingly, it actually refers to the bad guy — self-described “good ol’ boy” Floyd Chisholm (played by Gailard Sartain, who looks a lot like Ned Beatty). Floyd is a terrorist who’s motivated by a desire to cleanse America of all its invasive “rules” and “laws” and return it to the America first defined in the constitution. Usually when the bad guy gets a big speech early on, they outline some sort of evil plan to steal nukes or collect ransom or something, but Floyd’s speech quotes Thomas Jefferson and FDR and talks about how county and local laws should supersede federal laws.
Large parts of Floyd’s speech — and I’m not even exaggerating here — could be copied and pasted into speeches by Sarah Palin or Rick Santorum and no one would find it strange. I guess the political climate was a bit more relaxed in 1998, but these days, when even The Muppets gets accused of promoting a socialist agenda, something like The Patriot would never fly. If Seagal managed to get a movie like this into theaters in 2012, Bill O’ Reilly would drop trou and spray shit on it like a firehose (metaphorically speaking).
Part of Floyd’s sinister plan for returning America to its roots involves unleashing a deadly virus into a small town in Montana and blaming it on the government. Unfortunately for Floyd, he’s decided to release this virus into a town containing the man described by the CIA as “the best damn immunologist we got” — Dr. Wesley McClaren played by, yep, Steven Seagal. When that same CIA man is asked who the second best immunologist is, he answers “there ain’t no second best.” So, I guess, in addition to being the best damn immunologist we got, he’s also the only damn immunologist we got.
Before finding himself suddenly tasked with finding a cure for a deadly anthrax-like virus, and in-between hair-styling sessions, Seagal is seen working on his ranch, roping cattle and rescuing tiny horses.
He also has a small clinic in town where he treats the town’s folksy residents and accepts payment in free wood-working and homemade blackberry pies. The idea of Steven Seagal as a small-town family doctor is pretty funny. He gives an elderly, prominently mustached resident a confusing medical examination and says “we’ll get that kidney up and runnin’.” Seagal, of course, is as good at being a doctor as he is at everything he’s ever done. Another of his patients says, “ain’t no other doctor that can do what you do.”
The scenes in his clinic give Seagal some more opportunities to disseminate his hippie propaganda. He dismisses things like chemotherapy and dialysis, and prescribes herbal remedies for everything. This movie would have you believe “the best damn immunologist” in America is a family doctor who prescribes ginseng tea to treat cancer. No wonder Floyd wants to take back America. When a patient expresses some concern about his unconventional methods, Seagal says (and this is an actual quote): “Western medicine is in the business of prolonging illness, but Eastern medicine is in the business of curing it.”
Seagal is assisted/followed around by his folksy farm-hand (L.Q. Jones, who looks a little like Charles Bronson) and his daughter Holly (Camilla Belle), who’s admittedly pretty adorable. Seagal has always been a protector of the native people, but this time he actually is a Native American himself. His sister is a doctor (but obviously not an immunologist, as Seagal is the only damn immunologist we’ve got) named Dr. Ann Moon Cloud (Whitney Yellow Robe), who helps him find his cure.
Seagal’s speechifying on the subject of Native oppression is relatively limited, and surprisingly non-pandering. They soon discover that all Native people are immune to Floyd’s virus and Dr. Moon Cloud jokes “I guess that’s payback for smallpox” which is actually pretty funny, and yet another part of this movie that would make the folks at Fox News shit their pants with rage (metaphorically speaking).
In the end, Seagal finds out that the cure to Floyd’s manufactured, bio-chemical virus is drinking some tea with wild flowers — a development about as realistic as discovering that eating a bowl of Corn Flakes instantly cures AIDS. This, you see, is a message about how nature is powerful and has healing powers. Kinda silly, but it does lead to the movie’s one and only genuinely cool moment, in which gas-masked armed forces walk through the hills picking flowers.
Action-wise, the movie is unforgivably sparse. In terms of beatings-per-minute, it’s about on par with a Woody Allen movie. Towards the end, Seagal breaks the stem off a wine glass and stabs Floyd in the head with it, which is kind of cool, I guess. Earlier in the film, Floyd’s army of patriotic rednecks barge into the hospital and Seagal responds by pushing one of his men very gently, and he falls softly and slowly through one of the hospital’s walls, which are apparently made of soft styrofoam. And THAT’S IT. For the rest of the movie, Seagal pretty much just rides around his ranch and talks about herbs.
Although he’s not much of a martial artist anymore, the Seagal of The Patriot is apparently a skilled hacker. He puts on some John Lennon glasses and forges a government ID using an old Apple. It’s interesting that when he first opens the computer program (which looks an awful lot like MS Word), it asks him which branch of government he wants to create an ID for (CDC, CIA, etc). Is that an open-source plug-in, or can you buy it in stores? Seagal literally spends more time in the movie making his ID than he spends beating people up, but in the end, he doesn’t even use it.
However, what Seagal has gained in hacking skills he’s clearly lost in parenting skills. In his earlier movies he used to guard fiercely over his family, but this time around he’s constantly putting his young daughter in danger. He keeps sending her out to perform menial, unimportant tasks (get some saddles, check on grandpa, etc) despite knowing full-well that a bunch of heavily armed all-American vigilantes are out to get both of them.
One more shocking thing about this movie: it’s based on a book. That’s right: a book. Something most Seagal fans — no offense — haven’t held in their hands since they were forced to skim one or two of them in high school. And what’s more, it’s based on a Canadian book. Most Seagal fans — no offense — couldn’t find Canada on a map. I obviously haven’t actually read the book — and I neither know nor care to know where Canada is located — but I read a synopsis on Wikipedia, and it’s clear that The Patriot is adapted very, very loosely from its so-called source material.
The alleged inspiration (a book called The Last Canadian) is about a Canadian man in an isolated cabin who watches a deadly virus reduce the population of North America to a few thousand. In The Patriot, the virus never spreads past the Montana town Seagal is based in. Very few people even die of the virus in The Patriot, as Seagal comes up with his flower-cure pretty quickly. And one of the few things this movie does have going for it is that there are certainly no goddamn Canadians in it.
The Patriot was clearly not written as a Steven Seagal movie. In its basic structure, it’s more of a brainy, talky thriller along the lines of The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak. When Seagal injected himself into it, he ruined any chance it might have had at being a smart movie, but forgot to make up for that by making it awesome.
- Weapons: a wine glass, scientific knowledge.
- What People Say About Seagal:
- He is, as mentioned above, described by the CIA as “the best damn immunologist we’ve got.”
- An old woman says “you’re the only doctor that ever came to visit me at my house,” but that’s not very bad-ass.
- Floyd says “you should work for us, we could use your considerable intelligence.”
- Seagal Comebacks: nothing, really. Although he does tell Floyd “the words of Thomas Jefferson coming out of your mouth don’t mean shit.”
- Critical Bile: critics tend not to bother reviewing direct-to-DVD movies. I actually couldn’t find a single legitimate outlet that reviewed this film.
- Steven Seagal Hair Status: see above for a very detailed account.
- Steven Seagal Weight Watch: I know I say this every time, but Steven Seagal has DEFINITELY slimmed down a little. The double-chin is gone and he’s looking pretty svelte in his cowboy shirts.
- I posted this article on April 10, 2012, which is Steven Seagal’s 60th birthday! Happy b-day, big guy!
- For some reason the first 15 minutes of this movie were in the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but the rest was in TV-friendly 4:3. Maybe some DVD copies are all widescreen, I dunno.
- This movie’s DVD case says: “Hollwood action star Steven Seagal provides big-screen heroics in this exciting, nonstop hard-hitting thriller.” The cruel irony is that Hollywood action star Steven Seagal’s heroics never actually made it to the big-screen, as this hard-hitting thriller was deemed not exciting enough for a theatrical release.
- Camilla Belle, who plays Seagal’s daughter, was briefly a hot Hollywood commodity a decade or so after this, getting starring roles in wannabe blockbusters When a Stranger Calls and 10,000 BC.
- When I was in high school I worked at a video store and one of my teachers came in and rented this movie. I never looked at him the same way again.
- The Patriot’s screenplay was written by M. Sussman and John Kingswell, neither of whom have ever been credited on a single other movie. The director, Dean Semler, also directed Firestorm (not to be confused with Fire Down Below) and was an “uncredited” director of Super Mario Bros. according to IMDb.
- Seagal’s assistant in his clinic is his real-life daughter