The Great Raid
2005, R, 132 min. Directed by John Dahl. Starring Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes, Marton Csokas, Cesar Montano.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 12, 2005
War may indeed be hell, but for those on the home front these days this combatively boring misfire from the once promising director John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) plays like some mad information extraction exercise at Abu Ghraib if it were staffed by local cineplex popcorn drones-turned-black-ops baddies. Like the infamous Japanese water tortures of WWII, Dahl’s film is a steadily mounting series of pesky nonevents paced with all the frenetic, action-packed verve of a wounded lawn sprinkler. Never mind that the story of The Great Raid – which purports to tell the tale of the single largest rescue mission of WWII, during which some 500 American POWs, imprisoned in a hellish Japanese labor camp in the Philippines after the fall of Bataan, and more or less written off as acceptable losses by the Washington hawks – is riveting real-life wartime history at its finest. Onscreen, however, Dahl and writers Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro have instead crafted what may well be the single dullest war film of the past decade, if not longer. Despite the obvious and surely intentional title similarities, this is a far cry from John Sturges’ The Great Escape; in place of the supercool cocksurity of Steve McQueen we get Benjamin Bratt as the Ranger Lt. Colonel tagged to head up the mission. For some reason, Bratt equates the constant puffing out of his not-inconsiderable chest with rough-and-tumble leadership, which makes him look, on the contrary, more like a swaggering gamecock strutting around a blood-soaked barnyard in search of something to peck at. On the other side of the razorwire are the American prisoners, bedraggled, suffering from malaria, and wondering – not without just cause – if their leaders have forgotten their plight. As General MacArthur makes good on his promise to return to the Philippines, corncob pipe, aviator shades and all, the prisoners’ plight grows increasingly desperate. Major Gibson (Fiennes), the nominal heart and soul of the story, suffers not only from a ghastly bout of malaria but also an entirely unnecessary subplot involving the girl he left behind: the unflappable nurse and resistance fighter Margaret Utinsky (Nielsen), who repeatedly risks her life to provide the beleaguered POWs with black-market quinine to stave off the shuddery malarial sweats that threaten to wipe them out before the Japanese can execute them. There are the makings of a fine, moving, epic war film here, but thanks to the inclusion of enough chatty exposition to sink the Bismarck, again, and some just plain silly casting choices (Bratt and Nielsen, in particular, seem to have wandered in from some other, worse, picture), The Great Raid is anything but. It slogs along from forward command post to jungle crawl and, ultimately, liberation, without so much as a single memorably gung-ho, crowd-pleasing battle sequence. On the other hand, we do get Joseph Fiennes doing some method malarial acting, which, let’s face it, isn’t all that great either.