‘Hack­saw Ridge’ a com­pelling war story from Mel Gib­son

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - PREVIEW - By Mark Mes­zoros

In case you for­got, Mel Gib­son is a darn good di­rec­tor.

He re­minds you of that fact through­out “Hack­saw Ridge,” a largely ex­cel­lent, well-con­structed and -ex­e­cuted war drama based on the com­pelling true story of an Army soldier who served in World War II but who re­fused to even touch a ri­fle, let alone fire one at an­other per­son.

Gib­son has his per­sonal bag­gage, to say the least. How­ever, the di­rec­tor of films in­clud­ing 1995’s “Brave­heart” — an Os­car win­ner — “The Pas­sion of the Christ” (2004) and “Apoca­lypto” (2006) — knows what he’s do­ing be­hind the cam­era.

In his first film as a di­rec­tor in a decade, Gib­son oc­ca­sion­ally teeters on push­ing “Hack­saw Ridge” too far into nos­tal­gia and hokey­ness, but he avoids those po­ten­tial land­mines even while craft­ing a film that ex­plores — and cel­e­brates — Chris­tian val­ues.

An­drew Garfield (“The Amaz­ing Spi­der-Man” movies) stars as Des­mond Doss, who, while serv­ing in Ok­i­nawa, saved many lives dur­ing the war’s blood­i­est bat­tle, on Hack­saw Ridge.

The story be­gins, how­ever, 16 years ear­lier, when a young Des­mond (Darcy Bryce) nearly kills his brother, Harold (Ro­man Guer­riero), dur­ing one of their many oth­er­wise in­no­cent scrapes. This in­ci­dent — as well as the fact their al­co­holic fa­ther, who has men­tal scars from serv­ing in the Great War, beats on the boys and their God-abid­ing mother, Bertha (Rachel Grif­fiths) — ce­ments Des­mond on his non-vi­o­lent Chris­tian path.

Years later, after Harold (now played by Nathaniel Bu­zolic) en­lists fol­low­ing the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, Garfield’s Des­mond fol­lows suit. This de­ci­sion is not backed by his fa­ther, nor by the girl of his dreams, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). (A good chunk of the first part of “Hack­saw Ridge” is ded­i­cated to Des­mond’s courtship of Dorothy, and it’s en­tirely charm­ing. Ex­pect to fall in love with their love.)

Their fears for Des­mond seem well-founded when, dur­ing ba­sic train­ing, he draws the ire of his drill sergeant, How­ell (Vince Vaughn), and the unit’s com­man­der, Cap­tain Glover (Sam Wor­thing­ton). Des­mond’s re­fusal to take part in ri­fle train­ing — he in­tends to serve in bat­tle as a medic and was told when he en­listed he would not be re­quired to use a firearm — en­rages them and causes them to pit the other trainees against him.

It shouldn’t be giv­ing away too much to say the de­ter­mined Des­mond is tested greatly and fights to win most, if not all of them, over by the time the unit is sent to the front lines in Ja­pan. It is there

Des­mond’s true test awaits.

When the unit goes off the war, Gib­son ap­pro­pri­ately and skill­fully turns up the film’s in­ten­sity. It’s hard to say defini­tively where “Hack­saw Ridge” ranks with the most graphic war films, but it’s prob­a­bly in the dis­cus­sion. The bat­tle scenes in which the Amer­i­can troops fight the Ja­panese are the kind that re­minds those who have never seen com­bat that they are for­tu­nate. Yet de­spite the vi­o­lence and myr­iad grue­some sights — and again to Gib­son’s credit — these scenes never quite feel gra­tu­itous.

Garfield, de­spite us­ing a heavy Vir­ginia ac­cent that takes a lit­tle get­ting used to, helps an­chor the movie with a fine per­for­mance. Sure, Des­mond is an easy per­son to root for, but Garfield does noth­ing to mess with that.

While per­haps out of his com­fort zone a bit, Vaughn (“Wed­ding Crash­ers,” “De­liv­ery Man”) also turns in a nice ef­fort. You wouldn’t think the largely comedic ac­tor be the first call of a cast­ing di­rec­tor look­ing to fill the role of a drill sergeant, but Vaughn pulls off How­ell’s bal­ance of be­ing tough early on and then in­creas­ingly pro­tec­tive of the young men un­der him.

Like­wise, Wor­thing­ton (“Avatar”) makes the most of lim­ited screen time.

It’s Palmer (“Lights Out”), though, who re­ally im­presses. She’s just per­fect as what, ad­mit­tedly, is an ide­al­ized ver­sion of a 1940s nurse who catches the eye of a fu­ture soldier and then give him all the love and sup­port she can.

(By the way, one of Palmer’s costar in last year’s “Point Break” re­make, Luke Bracey, is solid as a mem­ber of the unit who gives Doss a hard time ini­tially but comes to bond with him.)

Lastly, “Hack­saw Ridge” is as strong as it is largely thanks to the screen­play by An­drew Knight (“The Wa­ter Diviner”) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Quiet Amer­i­can”).

With their writ­ing, the per­for­mances and Gib­son’s deft touch, “Hack­saw Ridge” runs nearly 140 min­utes but never has to beg for your at­ten­tion. And it saves its best for last, show­ing Doss’ in­sanely heroic ef­forts, for which he earned a Medal of Honor — the first con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor to do so.

His is a great story, and “Hack­saw Ridge” is a film that de­serves to be seen by the masses. Hope­fully, Gib­son’s past won’t keep them away.

MARK ROGERS/SUM­MIT VIA AP This im­age re­leased by Sum­mit shows An­drew Garfield, left, and Teresa Palmer in a scene from “Hack­saw Ridge.”

MARK ROGERS FOR LION­S­GATE An­drew Garfield, right, shares a scene with Luke Bracey in “Hack­saw Ridge.”

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