Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Great Raid

Posted By on Wed, Aug 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

Director John Dahl made an impressive debut in the ’90s with such cunning and clever thrillers as Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, mixing hints of pulp noir with a wickedly understated sense of humor.

Unfortunately, his latest endeavor, The Great Raid, shows none of the director’s sharp intelligence or style. Instead, Dahl has crafted a sturdy but static depiction of patriotic courage. Based on true events during the end of World War II, Raid depicts the heroic efforts of the 6th Ranger Battalion to liberate Cabanatuan, an infamous Japanese POW camp. Outgunned and outnumbered, the soldiers traveled 30 miles behind enemy lines and, with the assistance of Filipino guerillas, rescued 500 malnourished and malaria-stricken survivors of the Bataan Death March. The feat is considered one of the most daring and successful rescue operations in American history.

The film’s harrowing opening depicts Japanese soldiers herding confused POWs into air raid shelters, only to seal them in with gasoline drums and burn them alive. It’s a highly unsettling scene that seems to promise high stakes drama and a World War II movie with darker sensibilities — but instead, Dahl strives to evoke the rah-rah war movies of yesteryear. Sabotaged by wooden dialogue, poorly constructed plotlines and miscast roles, the film has a triptych of unfocused character narratives. James Franco plays the highly trained but inexperienced architect of the raid; Joseph Fiennes is the sickly commander; and Connie Nielsen is heroine Margaret Utinsky, an undercover nurse who smuggled medicine into the camps. This third story, with its ludicrous fictional romance and Hollywood’s tampering with the facts, undermines both the pace and drama of the film and diminishes the real Utinsky’s true self-sacrificing heroism. The elegant Nielsen looks ravishing in period garb but does little more than look worried as those around her are executed by the villainous Japanese.

In a role more suited for someone like Lee Marvin or Nick Nolte, Benjamin Bratt plays a tough-as-nails lieutenant. Leading a cast of instantly forgettable men, his importance to the mission is never clearly defined. His confrontations with the commander are quickly resolved and he spends most of the film posing thoughtfully with his pipe.

Joseph Fiennes shudders and twitches as the fictional Major Gibson, sick with malaria and unrequited love for Utinsky as he frets about the welfare of his men.

When it finally arrives, the raid bursts with frenetic energy and expert pacing. Pulling out all the stops, Dahl charts the action-packed sequence with coherence and panache, and the final 30 minutes of the film are as riveting as they are inspiring. Dahl redeems the film’s incredibly clumsy setup with a great piece of cinematic wartime action.

History Channel devotees will appreciate The Great Raid’s attention to detail and the historical footage that runs during the final credits, which shows the actual rescuers as joyous survivors embrace them. It’s well worth sticking around for.

However, one has to question the wisdom and taste of Miramax releasing a film that depicts the Japanese as inhuman monsters during the week of the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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