One might think that after 60 years of World War II pictures, big budget Hollywood's supply of fresh ideas for such ventures would be fully exhausted. But the court-martial-within-a-POW-escape drama "Hart's War" breathes surprising new life into the familiar by amalgamating genres and adding true human complexity to its not-so-stock characters.
Adapted from a novel by John Katzenbach, the film's recipe combines the prisoners' internal mistrust from "Stalag 17" with the wrongly-accused military trial from "A Few Good Men," leavened with a racial element and accentuated by a tunneling-to-freedom subplot from "The Great Escape" for good measure. Director Gregory Hoblit ("Frequency," "Primal Fear") proves himself a good cook, seamlessly blending these ingredients into a fresh and appetizing dramatic stew.
Talented but over-hyped Colin Farrell ("Tigerland," "American Outlaws") stars as Lt. Thomas Hart, a senator's son with no combat experience and a safe desk job in intelligence near the German lines in 1944. Captured in a roadblock ambush while escorting a commander back to the front, he's interrogated by the SS in a series of scenes that let the our imaginations get the worst of us.
Hoblit doesn't show much of the questioning itself, other than Hart answering every question with his name, rank and serial number in the early going. What we do see is the inexperienced Lieutenant shivering in his cold prison cell, naked and with bloodied feet.
Before long he's packed into a train car with dozens more captured Americans and shipped off to a POW camp, where he's told to bunk with the enlisted men instead of the officers by Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis), the ranking U.S. prisoner, who suspects the soft but resolute Hart has broken under the Germans' grilling and given up strategic Allied intelligence.
Only a few days later two Tuskegee Airmen -- officers and pilots from the United States' all-black fighter squadron -- arrive at the camp and are regulated to the same barracks, but for reasons of color not honor. Surrounded by racist soldiers who refuse to respect their rank, one of them is soon dead and the other, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terence Howard), is being court-martialed -- by the Americans with the blessing of the camp's Nazi commandant (Marcel Iures) -- for the murder of a bigot sergeant (Cole Hauser) who was instrumental in the first killing.
With two years of law school under his belt, Hart is assigned as defense council in the railroading show trial, which he discovers is a front for an elaborate escape-and-sabotage plot involving 35 men, for which McNamara is willing to sacrifice the innocent black pilot.
The bulk of the story focuses on the trial, in which Hart and Scott are faced with a moral dilemma -- tell the truth about the events surrounding the murder, thereby exposing facts that will compromise the escape and result in conspirators' hangings, or follow orders to keep quiet and face a certain conviction from a biased jury that will result in Scott's execution.
Because "Hart's War" plays the race card, Hoblit walks on eggshells with his black characters and the terrific Terence Howard ("The Best Man," "Angel Eyes") has the least interesting role as the 100-percent virtuous Lt. Scott. His whole performance comes down to a tear-welling speech about discrimination during his testimony that feels as if he should be on a soap box instead of on the barracks' makeshift witness stand. It's appropriate, but overblown to Ron Howard-like proportions of bombastity.
Meanwhile, Farrell, Willis, Hauser and Iures get to explore fascinating, flawed and contradictory facets of their characters, which is really what makes this film worth while.
Farrell's ingenuous performance solicits bona fide empathy for Hart as he tries to do right by Scott while atoning for his own private military blunder. Willis subtly expresses McNamara's conflict of interest as he oversees the trial with an iron fist while his knowledge of what really happened eats away at his honor, his integrity and his conscience.
Most notable is the German commandant played with tangy layers of conflicting personality by Iures ("The Peacemaker"). He comes on like a goose-stepping cliché as the prisoners arrive and when he destroys a jury-rigged radio found hidden in Willis' quarters, leading to speculation among the prisoners about how he knew it was there. But later he summons Hart to his office, reveals himself to be a fellow Yale alumni, expresses sincere sympathy and provides the junior officer with a pilfered copy of a United States military court martial manual to aid in his uphill battle as a novice attorney.
Add to all this intricacy some excellent work behind the scenes -- Rachel Portman's strong score, Alar Kivilo's impressive cinematography (which comes in handy during a couple spectacular bombing and dog-fight sequences watched by the prisoners as the Allies close in) -- and "Hart's War" more than holds its own against the films from which it borrows and blends storylines.
Run time: 125 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th February 2002
Box Office USA: $19.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $19.1M
Distributed by: MGM/UA
Production compaines: Cheyenne Enterprises, David Foster Productions, David Ladd Films, MGM
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
Fresh: 72 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 6.3 / 10
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Starring: Bruce Willis as Col. William A. McNamara, Colin Farrell as Lt. Thomas W. Hart, Terrence Howard as Lt. Lincoln A. Scott, Marcel Iures as Col. Werner Visser, Cole Hauser as Staff Sgt. Vic W. Bedford, Linus Roache as Capt. Peter A. Ross, Vicellous Reon Shannon as Lt. Lamar T. Archer, Rory Cochrane as Sgt. Carl S. Webb, Joe Spano as Col. J.M. Lange, Michael Weston as Pfc. W. Roy Potts, Adrian Grenier as Pvt. Daniel E. Abrams, Jonathan Brandis as Pvt. Lewis P. Wakely, Maury Sterling as Pfc. Dennis A. Gerber, Sam Jaeger as Capt. R.G. Sisk, Scott Michael Campbell as Cpl. Joe S. Cromin, Rick Ravanello as Maj. Joe Clary, Sebastian Tillinger as Pvt. Bert D. 'Moose' Codman, Brad Hunt as Pvt. G.H. 'Cookie' Bell, Rúaidhrí Conroy as Cpl. D.F. Lisko, Sam Worthington as as Cpl. B.J. 'Depot' Guidry
Also starring: Vicellous Shannon
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