2002, R, 125 min. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Starring Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Marcel Iures, Cole Hauser, Vicellous Shannon, Rory Cochrane, Linus Roache.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 15, 2002
There's nothing particularly astonishing about this WWII prisoner-of-war drama; the film marries standard court-martial dramatics to the race issue and then throws in a lugubrious Nazi commandant and a tough-as-nails Army colonel to make things interesting. The German SS Col. Wilhelm Visser (Iures) enjoys the hot American jazz of the hot American untermenschen, and the U.S. Col. William McNamara (Willis) is fond of his men, his boots, and his scowl (though not necessarily in that order). Both are situated in Stalag 6A, somewhere in Germany. When an unproven Yank officer in the form of Farrell's Lt. Tommy Hart arrives (having recently been waylaid by a Nazi ambush) to spend the remainder of the war as a POW, you quickly succumb to the feeling that you've seen all of this before. There are moments here that recall both Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 and John Sturges' The Great Escape, though nothing in this film threatens to overshadow either Otto Preminger or Steve McQueen at their wartime best. At the same time, Hart's War does an excellent job of capturing the weary, anxious drudgery of POW life and the sort of internecine black-marketeering that keeps the cams and driveshafts of camp life running smoothly. Alas, this is a destined to be a courtroom drama (the script, by Billy Ray, is based on the novel by John Katzenbach) and not a documentary. When a pair of black Navy fliers fresh out of Tuskegee arrive in camp, they are instantly made the target of abuse, from McNamara's insistence that they billet with the enlisted men to the camp's head redneck, Staff Sgt. Bedford (Hauser), who immediately begins making plans to get rid of the offending pair. The greasy Bedford soon turns up dead, however, and the blame is firmly affixed to airman Lt. Scott (Howard). Hart knows a railroading when he sees one and demands that the flinty McNamara put the lieutenant through an official court-martial before being summarily executed. This paves the way for a protracted bit of legal maneuvering, during which novice lawyer Hart finds himself being aided, much to his chagrin, by the toothy SS colonel who clearly relishes the free entertainment. Hart's War is at times genuinely affecting; Farrell, last seen in the locally shot and all-but-forgotten American Outlaws, pulls off a straightforward performance that does neither himself nor the story any disservice. Likewise Willis, who's playing on his crow's-feet more and more as time goes by. His craggy mountain of a face is set in a perpetual mask of grim determination, but the character of McNamara isn't what you'd call remarkable. Only Iures' wily Nazi (and is there any other kind?) comes off as notable, chiefly because he doesn't seem like a mincing parody of fascistic panache. Inoffensive and sporadically engrossing, Hart's War toes the line between wartime melodrama and unenlightening courtroom theatrics, gritty enough to catch and keep your eye while watching it, but gone soon after.