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With: Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, James Franco, Mark Consuelos, Cesar Montano, Connie Nielsen
Written by: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro based on The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William B. Breuer and Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides
Directed by: John Dahl
MPAA Rating: R for strong war violence and brief language
Language: English
Running Time: 132
Date: 12/08/2005

The Great Raid (2005)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Raid' to Order

A World War II picture with a title like The Great Raid might conjure up images of gung-ho war classics like The Great Escape, Hell and High Water, Merrill's Marauders, They Were Expendable, The Dirty Dozen, or The Guns of Navarone.

Unfortunately, the days of that kind of war movie are long gone. War movies today must walk a fine line between nobility and responsibility. Instead of gut-busting images of Lee Marvin or John Wayne, we get puffy, introspective images of Tom Hanks.

But The Great Raid doesn't even score an "A" list cast, much less anyone with a hardened jawbone whom we can rally around. The new film stars Joseph Fiennes, Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Connie Nielsen. Viewing the finished product, it's not hard to imagine how this very talky, strangely non-visual film passed through many hands before finding any cast at all.

Even director John Dahl, who has established himself as a kind of modern day Robert Siodmak, directing nasty, scrappy little films noir like Red Rock West and Rounders, waves a 'career-move' red flag. The Great Raid practically screams out, "I don't want to be pigeonholed as a film noir director."

This film is set in the Philippines of 1945, where a band of American soldiers have languished for three years in the Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan. Their fate was the result of the Battle of Bataan, from which General MacArthur withdrew, vowing "I shall return."

Three storylines unfold concurrently. A POW, Major Gibson (Fiennes), wrestles with malaria. Nearby, his secret love (Nielsen) is a nurse who also surreptitiously works for the Filipino Underground. Meanwhile, Colonel Mucci (Bratt) and Captain Prince (Franco) plan the nearly impossible rescue mission with the aid of the Filipino resistance, led by Captain Pajota (Cesar Montano).

Dahl opens the film with reams of black-and-white stock footage, explaining the situation and the mindset of both the disheartened Americans and the Japanese brainwashed into fearing and hating Americans. Yet this effort does not keep the Japanese villains from sounding like moustache-twisting clichés.

The main problem is that the characters in Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro's screenplay are given the thankless task of describing the plot with their dialogue, rather than through their actions. Occasionally, Dahl inserts a quick shootout or a chase scene to liven things up, mostly of the choppy-and-shaky variety. But with no characterization or emotional weight, these too fall flat.

On top of this, there are too many characters, played too blandly to be memorable from scene to scene. When the "great raid" finally comes it's too faceless to matter. Taking place at midnight, it's too dark to see anyone, and even if we could, we have no idea who they are.

The Great Raid ultimately hopes to revive for current generations one of the American military's biggest catastrophes, while simultaneously paying tribute to its original players. But the film lacks both excitement and outrage, and all that remains is solemnity. It makes you wonder whether you should watch the movie or stand at attention.

DVD Details: Miramax's two-disc set comes with a director's commentary track, a making-of featurette and lots of historical extras. It claims to be an "unrated director's cut," but the running time is one minute less than the theatrical cut...

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