The Great Raid Movie Review
The facts are these: In 1945, as the American army is pushing back the Japanese in the Philippines, Tokyo has issued an order to exterminate every prisoner of war, an order enthusiastically carried out in the beginning of the film, which recreates an episode in which 150 U.S. POWs were covered in gasoline and set on fire. The Americans know that as they advance, the Japanese will do the same thing at every camp they get close to, and that the American Sixth Army is only days away from the camp at Cabanatuan, with over 500 prisoners - a starving and miserable bunch who survived the Bataan Death March and three years of privation only to face murder just as their fellow soldiers approach. So a team of 121 soldiers, mostly inexperienced Rangers, are ordered to sneak 30 miles behind Japanese lines and liberate Cabanatuan. It's a jury-rigged, rag-tag sort of mission, with the soldiers knowing it's a suicide detail, but also knowing they couldn't stand not to try.
If the film had simply followed the bare bones of this operation, the fast march through the steaming woods and the assault on the camp, all against incredible odds, we could have ended up with a fine piece of pulse-quickening historical drama -- even if the Rangers were lead by Benjamin Bratt and James Franco (more on casting in a bit). But in real life there were a lot of other elements in play, including a nurse, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), working with the Manila Underground to keep the Cabantuan prisoners supplied with medicine, as well as the inherent drama of the prisoners themselves, having survived so long only to face possibly dying with their rescuers only miles away. And when it comes down to weaving these three stories into a cohesive drama, the filmmakers fail in every sense of the word.
Now for that word on casting. It should have been a warning sign when the best whom Dahl could come up with to play the officers (Lt. Col. Mucci and Capt. Prince) leading the charge into almost certain death were Bratt and Franco, respectively. Both are decent performers, probably on most casting directors' lists for a good-lucking guy to play one of The Other Detectives in a cop movie, but asking them to carry the load of this film on their backs is just unconscionable. About all Bratt can muster is a wan grimace, while Franco just tries to pout his way through. In what should have been a better move, Joseph Fiennes plays the head American officer, skeletal and slowly dying; like his brother, he can suffer quite admirably on screen, but the ragtag script leaves little else for him to do. About the only actor who leaves an impression here is Cesar Montano, playing the head of a band of Filipino guerrillas. With his slouch hat and swagger, he displays a cocksure, easy arrogance that gives the film some sorely needed star power.
While Dahl has shown before a more obvious affinity for noir (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West, even the underrated Rounders) than pulling off a massive war epic, when The Great Raid finally starts to wrap up, he shows himself more than capable. The firefight that erupts over the film's final stretch is a tightly constructed and sinuously coordinated sequence that could stand as a textbook for future film students. Ultimately one is left uncomfortably torn between irritation at the absolutely haphazard scripting and uninspired acting, and admiration for the astonishing true story being told (highlighted by some excellent documentary footage at the end) and the sheer weight of truly awesome technical prowess on display.
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