Mel Gibson's problematic "Hacksaw Ridge" (***) has harrowing battle sequences

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It has been ten years since Mel Gibson gave us "Apocalytpo," a bloody, surreal, but cinematic-ally brilliant dissection of the Mayan's final days. "Hacksaw Ridge" is his fifth movie as a director. I missed it when it premiered at Venice because I was out covering the Toronto International Film Festival, so I was highly anticipating watching this latest film from "Bloody Mel." 

Tackling WWII for the first time as a director, Gibson sets his film on the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) a soldier that refuses to handle a gun or shoot a bullet, but willing to risk his own life to save the lives of others. Cue in the Christian imagery, a Gibson staple, which gets milked for all its worth in this movie. Why does Desmond not want to shoot or kill? the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." His religious convictions are too strong that he would rather be imprisoned than take the life of the enemy. He's a "conscientious objector" driven to join the army out of patriotic duty, even if he has a romance going on back home with a beautiful nurse (Teresa Palmer).

Of course, things don't go as planned, he is ridiculed by his peers in boot-camp, beaten up, abused, and imprisoned for his refusal to bear arms. He does end up getting his wish and going to the battleground with nary a weapon, thanks to his father, himself a war veteran, who turns to a old army friend with power to grant the permission.

The first half of the film is somewhat flawed, convoluted and reveals a softer side to Gibson, that I'd rather never see again, with a cliched and calculating setup and one-too many christian allegories. The bubble-gum cinematography by Simon Duggan ("Warcraft," "I, Robot," "The Great Gatsby") is also a large misstep, stripping off the grittiness that should come with such a visceral experience. The second half reveals what "Bloody Mel" is best at doing on-screen: passionate, visceral mayhem. It's no secret that he loves shooting violence on-screen, check out "Braveheart," "The Passion of the Christ" and Apocalypto" if you have your doubts, and "Hacksaw Ridge" is no exception.

The close-combat between the USA and Japan on the Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa is a no-holds barred spectacle from a man that knows how to shoot fury. He means to make us see hell on screen with limbs flying all over the place. Bullets, bombs, grenades and rocket launchers take up most of the screen-time from thereon in. Caught up in the middle of all this Doss does his best to save lives and makes amends with a troupe that took him for granted. 

After a failed attempt to take over Hacksaw, Doss receives an epiphany from God, yeah I know. He'd rather die saving lives than not try at all. Taking advantage of the surreal Japanese evening he attempts to sneak into combat territory and drag injured soldiers out of harm's way. This tense game of suspense is the film's real high-point and reveals Gibson at the top of his filmmaking game. 

Gibson believes in the goodness of this world and this is an "inspirational faith film" that bears many resemblances to Angelina Jolie's, yes, slightly superior "Unbroken" which had more at stake than Gibson's film. "Hackaw Ridge" is much more brutal in its depiction of violence, but also doesn't fully flesh out the characters it portrays.

Andrew Garfield is commendable as a wide-eyed hero that will, cross your fingers, likely be a far cry from his character in Scorsese's "Silence." There aren't many complexities to Doss, which does tend to narrow down the film into caricature. This is a well-made blockbuster with a killer second-half, but we expected a little more. [B/B+]
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