A ragtag team of poorly developed underdogs pitted against an overwhelming destructive force? This must be the latest from the producing/directing team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla). In place of space aliens or radioactive lizards, however, The Patriot substitutes British redcoats attempting to suppress the American Revolution. The difference, however, is negligible. Mel Gibson stars as a South Carolina farmer whose French & Indian War heroics have made him a local legend. Now a responsible widowed father, he lets the revolution start without him, even after the enlistment of gung-ho son Heath Ledger. But when sadistic English colonel Jason Isaacs shoots Gibson's 15-year-old in cold blood, the war gets personal and Gibson, as with Braveheart, tackles the now-dead system of English colonialism head-on. That's Devlin and Emmerich's simple-minded strategy for bringing America's creation myth to the summer cineplex crowd: Convert it into a revenge fantasy. Despite some early-film references to issues of taxation and representation, and a script by Saving Private Ryan screenwriter Robert Rodat, The Patriot plays out with the grim inevitability of a Death Wish movie, with only wigs and spurs to set it apart. A few early moments, including a grisly sequence in which Gibson enlists two preteen sons in brutally slaughtering a company of British soldiers, offer at least a hint of moral ambiguity. But every subsequent scene aligns The Patriot ever closer with its hawks. After all, who's to say what the proper age for killing redcoats should be? Its plot stirred only by the periodic slaying of major characters to heighten tension, The Patriot lurches toward a literally flag-waving finale, cheating any sort of bigger issue at every opportunity. (The unquestioning patriotism of its black characters, for instance, is never suggested to be anything but well-placed, even though the war allowed for another century of slavery. Only U.N.-fearing militia enthusiasts, who will surely embrace this film, will find anything relevant to contemporary politics.) In the end, despite some well-mounted battle sequences, The Patriot is little more than staged brutality ineffectively masked by a sense of historical importance, a sporadically compelling but vile spectacle that's as creatively bankrupt as anything Devlin and Emmerich have created.