The Great Raid
Well-meaning, but ultimately dull, The Great Raid fails to live up to its glorious-sounding title. Though the actual rescue might have been a bold and pulse-pounding mission, the film version, despite its adherence to facts, barely keeps one awake.
In January 1945, soldiers from the 6th Ranger Battalion snuck 30 miles behind Japanese enemy lines in the Philippines to rescue 500 POWs--survivors of the hellish Bataan Death March--from the notorious Cabanatuan prison camp. The result was one of the most audacious and successful rescue missions in U.S. military history. Led by Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Robert Prince (James Franco), the Rangers--many of whom have never seen a street fight, let alone battle--crawl through thick jungle, hide in tall grass from enemy convoys and plot their daring raid from a nearby village the Japanese have seemingly failed to notice. Back at the camp, word spreads that General MacArthur has landed, forcing Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), who's dying of malaria, to stop his fellow prisoners from escaping. The camp is kept alive by a Philippine underground unit, led by Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), an American nurse. Margaret, whose husband recently died as a prisoner in the camp, stays behind out of obligation, supplying the prisoners with precious quinine--and also becoming the object of Major Gibson's affections. But with the arrival of Major Nagai (Motokui Kobayashi), a sadistic Japanese commander sent to exterminate the prisoners, the camp grows antsy with fear and anticipation. Meanwhile, the Ranger battalion makes its way closer to the final showdown, setting the stage for their daring rescue.
The acting, such as it is, never swerves away from steely-eyed glares, macho posturing and aw-shucks heroics--all of which recounts the glorious yesteryear of Hollywood war movies. If it wasn't for the occasional swear and the date glowing on my cell phone, I could have sworn it was the 1940s. While the on-screen violence meets today's Hollywood standards, the undercurrent of God, mom and apple pie rings false in these tattooed-and-pierced nippled-times. As Captain Prince, Franco narrates the story, establishing himself as the main character. But we learn little about him, except that he's got a wife at home and thinks Colonel Mucci doesn't like him very much. Bratt exudes a stalwart bravado as Mucci, though his earnest delivery and stony demeanor deadens what could be a fun character. He does hint at some inner turmoil--thoughtfully smoking his pipe and staring into the distance gives it away--but he only alludes to what's wrong. Is he worried about the mission? Concerned for his boys? Wondering what's for dinner? Joseph Fiennes is good, as always, though his bedridden scenes smell a little like brother Ralph's in The English Patient. Meanwhile, the rest of the Rangers and prisoners are little more than nameless faces scattered about the island to serve as scenery. If only the Japanese were so two-dimensional--they exist merely to be shot down or blown to bits. Only Ms. Nielsen offers any complexity and nuance to her character--fear, death, torture and unrequited love can do that to a person.
Once upon a time, patriotic movies about World War II were commonly churned out by an obliging studio system. But the honor and glory those films projected died once Vietnam was ushered into the public consciousness. Ever since, a realistic and often cynical tone has been injected into most war films. In trying to recapture this lost honor and glory while remaining true to the real-life characters and events, director John Dahl (Rounders) battles mightily to create a suspenseful and entertaining film--and unfortunately loses. Though the historical facts are rock solid, much like anything you'd see on the History Channel, Dahl has crafted an insipid and humorless movie that fails to spark interest in its subject or characters. While it is noble to honor the men and women who risked certain death to rescue the prisoners, regurgitating history makes for dull drama. Even Shakespeare knew that. The only dramatic license taken is with Fiennes' Major Gibson, a fictional character in love with the real-life Margaret. But it's hard to empathize when watching him pine for Margaret knowing that her husband was his best friend. Equally off-putting is Margaret yearning for Gibson, even though her husband's picture still marks a place in her bible. Visually, the film looks great, and the battle scenes are action-packed, though too one-sided (I know, I know, that's how it really happened.) But without any emotional investment in the characters, I simply didn't care if they were successful with the raid.
While The Great Raid attempts to recapture the honor and glory of old school war movies, the result is an uninspired piece of fluff that lacks emotion and suspense. For a more compelling take on the bold rescue of prisoners from Cabanatuan, watch the History Channel instead.