Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson Delivers One Hell of a War Epic

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Hacksaw Ridge Plot Summary:

Based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a medic in World War II who was a conscientious objector and refused to fire a gun.  He saved many lives in the taking of Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa.

You can say a lot of things about Mel Gibson.  One of them is that he’s a truly gifted filmmaker.  While American Sniper was a great war movie as a gripping character study, Hacksaw Ridge is the more traditional war epic.  We always use Saving Private Ryan as the benchmark.  Nothing will ever beat that opening sequence in Normandy.  Hacksaw Ridge puts up one hell of a worthy effort.  This is one of those war movies where you need a minute before getting up to leave the theater once it ends.  This is what film should do.  It takes you through an experience.  Aside from the no holds barred war sequences, it does what so many other war movies like Fury, Lone Survivor and Jarhead fail to do.  It creates characters you actually care about, making those harsh sequences that much more impactful.

ridge-real-pic-1 The movie is essentially told in three phases.  We get to know Desmond Doss from his humble beginnings in Virginia.  We are immediately brought in to his troubled childhood, as his father, Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), is completely rattled and ruined from fighting in World War I.  We’ll get to Andrew Garfield soon enough, but the performance of the movie might be Hugo Weaving.  He should merit Oscar consideration.  He’s the alcoholic dad who can’t shake the demons of his past.  In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes all year, Tom goes into gory details about his war experience after Desmond’s brother (Nathaniel Buzolic) comes home for dinner after just enlisting.  It’s one of those “floors you” scenes, and is Weaving’s Oscar reel.  This is probably the best I’ve ever seen Hugo Weaving act.

The film doesn’t just sit back on its war laurels.  It dives deep into Desmond’s past, and shows us why this guy refuses to hold a weapon.  There’s actual meat to it.  Not only do we see where Desmond’s morals come from, but we get to know this guy as an actual person.  A big chunk of the first act is a simple love story.  It’s a little too Hollywood, but you completely buy into Desmond and Dorothy’s relationship.  Teresa Palmer does a good job of playing this very likable character.

The middle section is all about the army’s response to this kid not wanting to even hold a gun.  As you can imagine, they aren’t very happy.  While we’ve gotten to know this character as the likable, goofy kid from Virginia, now we see his pride and honor come under full attack.  The back and forth with his army superiors are all compelling.  You understand both sides.  These scenes also work because the more Desmond sticks to his guns (no pun intended), the more his unit is punished.  The film does a masterful job once again of giving the secondary characters actual personalities so we care about them when they all go into battle.

This is where Gibson may do his most impressive directing.  He gets performances out of actors I had no idea where capable of such charisma.  Luke Bracy for crying out loud is fantastic.  Yes.  Luke Bracey.  The guy who played Cobra Commander in G.I. Joe: Retaliation.  He develops a strong bond with Desmond, and their scenes are just what the doctor ordered to break up the chaotic war moments.  Sam Worthington, an actor I have slammed many times, is solid as Desmond’s captain.  He’s really the guy who has to deal with the fallout at Desmond’s refusal to fire a weapon.  He carries this weight well.  I’m not going to say Sam Worthington’s name should be etched on an Oscar statue, but he proves in the right role he can be a compelling figure.

Aside from Hugo Weaving, the man who steals the show backwards and forwards is Mr. Vince Vaughn.  AWESOME performance.  Absolutely outstanding.  Vince, for the love of Moses, stick with drama.  Vaughn plays the Sergeant who’s basically the drill instructor for Desmond’s unit.  Not only do you get very light Vaughn-isms, but you buy him hook, line and sinker as a tough son of a gun you don’t want to piss off.  As the movie goes on, he just becomes more and more bad ass.  I can’t express how great he is in this role.

hacksaw-posterThe only actor I haven’t delved into yet is Andrew Garfield.  Much like he did in 99 Homes last year, he’s proven once again he’s a leading man.  I’m so glad he’s out of that Spider-Man garbage.  My only complaint with Garfield’s performance is that at times he has this silly grin on his face, although that makes the character more endearing early on.  Once the second half of the film hits and it’s all war, Garfield absolutely commands the screen.

Once the movie goes all out war, it goes all out.  Horrific and powerful imagery.  Ridiculous cinematography (cue up another potential loss for Roger Deakins).  When you least expect it, the movie practically throws you into a brick wall and never let’s go.  The action is filmed perfectly.  No shaky cam garbage.  No gimmicks.  Gibson doesn’t screw around.  Incredible.

My biggest complaint is that the film can feel too Hollywood at times, including a little over the top in the beginning.  The score is very generic, and seeing how it’s done by the same guy (Rupert Gregson-Williams) who composed The Legend of Tarzan and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, we probably could have done a little better.

Mel Gibson’s acting career may never recover, but he’s here to stay as a director for a long time.  This is also one of those rare movies where I was probably the youngest person in the crowd.  I have no doubt there were many veterans in the theater.  The film got a huge reaction.  If you like war movies, this is absolutely required viewing.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Really Great)

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Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.