The Great Raid
August 12th, 2005
Held in the Miramax vaults for a long time now, “The Great Raid” finally gets a chance to breathe, but the final product wasn’t worth the wait. A dull, monotone take on WWII patriotism and heroics, this John Dahl-directed war film is burdened with an unproven cast and a script that doesn’t have any fire in its belly.
Near the bitter end of World War II, American POWs stuck in the notorious Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines are facing their darkest hour. After years of malnutrition and the absence of rescue attempts, the prisoners (including Joseph Fiennes and Marton Csokas) are losing faith, and the Japanese military is planning their extermination. Hope is found in a regiment of soldiers, led by Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Prince (James Franco), as they struggle to cross deadly Japanese territory in an effort to rescue the POWs and bring them home.
Filmed over three years ago, “The Great Raid” finally makes it to theaters after a long, unexplained delay. Yet, in those three years, nobody in the production looked to change one little detail: “Raid” is one dull motion picture.
Ever since Steven Spielberg landed a patriotic hit with 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan,” Hollywood has been rabid for inspirational WWII stories. “Great Raid” is noteworthy for the small corner of history it tries to recreate. Armed with his biggest budget to date, director John Dahl (“Rounders,” “The Last Seduction”) gets a lot of production value out of this intimate war story, recreating a tumultuous period of history with gorgeous production design and handsome locations. It’s just a shame that Dahl couldn’t rile up the screenplay more.
“Raid” is a story split three ways: the journey of the would-be rescue party, the POWs’ loss of faith, and the tale of Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), who risked her life smuggling medicine into the camp for her lover. Most of these plot thread involve a lot of conversations setting up the grand finale. Trouble is, the conversations and resulting drama do not grip the spirit as much as they intend to. “Raid” aspires to dreamy, one-dimensional patriotism, complete with evil moustache-twirling Japanese soldiers. Other directors have made this work, but Dahl is tripped by the enterprise, and his film limps to the finish line.
His miscast performers, who attempt to convey all-American soldier earnestness and brawn but end up looking blank, don’t do enough to help the director’s vision. While James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, and Joseph Fiennes venture to define themselves as individuals in the midst of this historical production, their performances seem off-key. This is especially true of Franco, who has the difficult role of the man-behind-the-raid. The end credits reveal actual newsreel footage of Prince, and he looks hard and creased, everything Franco isn’t. And if I had a nickel for every time Fiennes gave a longing performance, I would be a rich man. Somebody give this guy a bastard role right away. In a smaller, forgotten role, Connie Nielsen registers well as the smuggler Margaret, but her section of the film is the only one with a pulse, which might account for how well she comes off.
Once the much-anticipated raid begins, Dahl surprises with his ferocity portraying wartime combat. The action in the last 30 minutes is intense and invigorating, clearly demonstrating that if the majority of the production focused on the fireworks rather than the drama, “Raid” would be a corker of a war film. The intensity of the battles manages to bring back the awe and urgency of this tale, which would have done wonders for the rest of the picture. “Great Raid” shines a light on an important, little-told tale of WWII combat, but the history deserves less drowsy reverence and more wartime enthusiasm.
My rating: C