Let The Mayhem Begin

Shopping for a hero this week? Featured in the summer hero department are Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis. You want a hero with long romantic hair? Mel's your man in Braveheart as William Wallace, the 13th-century Scot who fired up the rebellion against English rule. Don't dig those medieval dreadlocks? Take scruffy-scalped Bruce in Die Hard With a Vengeance, third in the hard-dying series about detective John McClane. You prefer a hero who'd rather love than fight? That's Wallace, who starts killing people only after the English do something awful to his angelic wife, Murron (Catherine McCormack). With McClane, all that gooey stuff is off-screen; he's separated from his wife, so he can get right down to battling the terrorist gang that invades New York led by the fiendishly clever Simon (Jeremy Irons).

Summer heroes run up the body count. Wallace and his no-tech medieval guys out-score McClane and the high-tech moderns. With spears, swords, lances, axes, arrows. burning pitch, the Scots and English hack. pierce, disembowel. decapitate, and torch one another in the biggest, bloodiest battle scenes in years. In "Die Hard WAV" there's one measly guy sliced in half, but there are lots of sophisticated bombs planted all over New York: in a department store, a public school, the subway, the Federal Reserve Bank vaults, where the terrorists are after $140 billion in gold.

Heroes need worthy adversaries. Randall Wallace's screenplay provides a historical one: England's King Edward I, known as Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan). His mon-omaniacal fury (he tosses his effete son's friend out the castle window) is scarier than Teutonic terrorist Simon's smirky plotting in "Die Hard WAV." Heroes also need sidekicks, and here "Die Hard" wins big. The Hamishes and Campbells in "Braveheart" don't match "Die Hard's" Zeus Carver, the owner of a Harlem appliance store who becomes Bruce's reluctant buddy. Zeus, the inspiration of screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh, is played by the brilliant Samuel L. Jackson (Oscar nominee for "Pulp Fiction") with wit and relish.

Wallace is a real person; McClane is a comic-strip figure. "Braveheart" is a huge historical epic directed by Gibson with a well-balanced blend of romantic and documentary styles. "Die Hard WAV" is a ludicrous, impossible story, another whiplashing ride through the world of amazing stunts and special effects, directed by action specialist John McTiernan. But both are hero-driven movies. In "Braveheart" the injustices of history, the horror of flesh-rip-ping war, are simply the setting for Gibson's valiant Wallace, going after the bad guys. In "Die Hard WAVy the silliness of the story recedes before the titanic reality of New York, defended by a human Mighty Mouse.

"Braveheart" is an impressive achievement, Gibson's honorable shot at a big,resonant paean to freedom, like "Spartacus." But it's too long at nearly three hours; there's too much repeating of treacheries and battles "Die Hard WAV" lacks the freshnessof its two predecessors: we've had it with gassy police psychiatrists and supersmart terrorists. But somehow its sheer ridiculous manic energy is more fun than "Braveheart's" blood-drenched piety. Both movies romanticize violence: the real Wallace and his Scots were patriots, but were not above stripping the skin of their foes for trophies. And "Die Hard WAV" reflects the explosive madness of our time. As for the heroes, Gibson has a masculine sweetness that balances his physical dynamism. Willis is an engaging urban everyman; he looks like your plumber who can't believe that the john has just exploded all over him. Willis is the action version of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, the guy caught in a Rube Goldberg world that's become a minefield. Mel and Bruce should get together before they're too old to bounce.