Dir: John Dahl. US. 2005.130mins.
The inherent messiness ofarmed combat gets a full and solemn workout in director John Dahl's detailed,solidly staged World War II liberation flick The Great Raid, anold-fashioned movie of stark moral clarity that will appeal to hardcore genrefans and flag-waving American patriots, but not likely make a huge commercialdent in the action market, either domestically or internationally.
The film is of a kindperhaps slightly out of fashion these days, with less emphasis on colourfullydistinguishable individual personalities than intricately plotted militaristicchess moves. The story, in all its gritty minutiae, is the real star here. TheGreat Raid, consequently, feels strangely of a piece with the war filmsfrom the very period it chronicles, the mid-1940s.
Box office prospects will behindered by both the movie's glacial first hour and its lack of star power whenit opens in the US on Aug 12. Ancillary value, however, should be quite strong,as this is the type of film whose very refusal to bow to popular conventionimbues it with an emotional universality that only lengthens its shelf life.
Set in the Philippines overfive days in January, 1945, the based-on-fact story centres on the 6th RangerBattalion of the United States Army, headed up by Colonel Henry Mucci (BenjaminBratt) and Captain Ben Prince (James Franco, turning stubborn stoicism into avirtue). With World War II waning, it's only a matter of time before the Alliesdrive Japan out of the country.
Prince works up a plan forhis corps to go behind enemy lines, working with Filipino resistance forces torescue 500 American prisoners of war from the Japanese-held Cabanatuaninternment camp. It's a mission of admittedly little strategic value but greatmoral importance (these soldiers were held for years, the longest of any AlliedPOWs), and still the most successful rescue mission in modern American militaryhistory.
Carlo Bernard and DougMiro's script, based on two separate historical texts, details the action fromthree merging points-of-view: the aforementioned plotters the titular attack,those inside the POW camp, and those in the Filipino underground assisting theprisoners through smuggling them medicine.
Though stricken withmalaria, Major Daniel Gibson (Joseph Fiennes, letting his stubble conveydignity) keeps his fellow captives in line, and stubbornly refuses to cede anyuseful information to his captors when he deduces, correctly, that the Japaneseplan to liquidate all prisoners upon their impending retreat.
Lithuanian nurse MargaretUtinsky (Connie Nielsen), meanwhile, the widow of one of Gibson's men andholder of a mutual crush, secretly funnels quinine and other medications to thecamp through a series of intermediaries.
The Great Raid isreminiscent in passing of fellow war movies like The Big Red One and TheBridge On The River Kwai, the latter of which also details a battle ofwills between POWs and their Japanese captors. Scrupulously annotated withclarifying loglines, the film succeeds in establishing its spatialrelationships on a budget short of many like-minded competitors.
After an opening 45 minutesor so of bumpy acclimation, the movie warms up dramatically. The final siegefeels cathartic if not rousing. Its characters are remarkably indistinct,though, and the socio-political machinations that form one-third of thenarrative triad equally hazy and imprecise.
Dahl does a credible job,but specializes in brooding, sometimes pulpy genre fare (Red Rock West, Joyride,Rounders), and the finale action set pieces in The Great Raid, truth betold, aren't going to really get anyone's blood pumping. Rather, he is bestwith a script that gives him some built-in visceral pop - and this moviedoesn't afford him that.
Among the cast, Franco makesan underwritten part memorable, and Csokas especially makes an impression asprisoner Red, Gibson's right-hand man who is hell bent on escape.
Lawrence Bender Productions
Michelle Raimo Aboua
Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, from the stories The Great Raid On Cabanatuan byWilliam Breuer and Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides
Peter Menzies Jr