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Photograph by Pierre Vinet/courtesy Miramax Films

Grunts: Mark Consuelos and James Carpinello soldier on in 'The Great Raid.'

'Raid' to Order

John Dahl's World War II rescue film, 'The Great Raid,' sinks into stilted solemnity

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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 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 nonvisual 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 film noirs like Red Rock West and Rounders, waves a "career-move" red flag. The Great Raid practically screams, "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 Gen. MacArthur withdrew, vowing, "I shall return." Three story lines unfold concurrently. A POW, Maj. Gibson (Fiennes), wrestles with malaria. Nearby, his secret love (Nielsen) is a nurse who also surreptitiously works for the Filipino underground. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Mucci (Bratt) and Capt. Prince (Franco) plan the nearly impossible rescue mission with the aid of the Filipino resistance, led by Capt. Pajota (Cesar Montano).

Dahl opens the film with reams of black-and-white stock footage, explaining the situation and the mind-set 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 is too faceless to matter. Taking place at midnight, we can't see anyone, and even if we could, we have no idea who they are. The film 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.

The Great Raid (R), directed by John Dahl, written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, based on material by William B. Breuer and Hampton Sides, photographed by Peter Menzies Jr. and starring Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes and James Franco, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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