The daring 1944 rescue of 511 U.S. POWs from a notorious Japanese prison camp in the Philippines proved to be a golden opportunity to assuage the shame of the previous surrender. "The Great Raid," on the other hand, reps a lost opportunity to dramatize that WWII rescue.

The daring 1944 rescue of 511 U.S. POWs from a notorious Japanese prison camp in the Philippines proved to be a golden opportunity to assuage the shame of the previous surrender. “The Great Raid,” on the other hand, reps a lost opportunity to dramatize that WWII rescue. Pic joins recent leaden and literal-minded American war movies, including “Gods and Generals,” “The Alamo” and “The Patriot,” which fail to make history pulse with vitality. This overlong march will bore all but the most nobly patriotic of auds, making a quick retreat to vid bivouacs, where its mildly epic feel will be lost.

Lensed nearly three years ago but delayed by Miramax, which is releasing it now as part of a last-minute rush of pics being released before the official exit of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, project is a classic example of talented people given the wrong assignments.

Problem starts with noir specialist John Dahl as helmer. Here, Dahl is forced to put aside everything he’s good at — compact storytelling, portentous Western settings, nefarious characters — in favor of managing a bloated and studied imitation of better prison camp films, from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “The Great Escape.”

Similarly out of their element are leads Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Joseph Fiennes, who never manage to viscerally connect with their characters’ dilemmas or strengths. Several artistic contributors — from first-time screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro to production designer Bruno Rubeo and composer Trevor Rabin (whose music almost never stops during the slow 132 minute running time) — appear to have created what they believe a WWII Pacific movie should look and sound like, but without ever managing to make it feel real.

A factoid approach defines the History Channel-style intro, narrated by Franco’s Captain Prince and filled with black-and-white documentary footage of the start of the Pacific war from Pearl Harbor to the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, the U.S. retreat and the surrender of more than 70,000 Allied troops who ended up in brutal prison camps and the infamous Bataan death march.

By August 1944, tide of the war had turned, and the Allies were back in the Philippines beating back the Japanese. Hollywood depictions of this less-appreciated front of WWII are so uncommon that younger auds who slept through history class may be stunned to see Japanese soldiers depicted here as murderous thugs, bent on killing all prisoners before the inevitable final battle with the Allies.

Bernard and Miro’s script plods from the start as it carefully introduces Prince and his macho commanding officer Lt. Colonel Mucci (Bratt), prisoners at the Japanese-controlled Cabanatuan prison camp led by Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), and the clandestine civilian underground in Manila embodied by gutsy nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen).

Mucci has convinced top brass to sign off on an extremely risky rescue mission to extract the surviving 511 Cabanatuan prisoners. His unit of Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts has seen no action, and the untested fighters show no fear here. Similarly, although Fiennes looks worn as the ever-ailing Gibson, the suffering of the prisoners is presented with strangely little emotional effect.

A bit more tension is created on the Manila streets, where Utinsky manages to smuggle medicines to the POWs. In one scene, where Utinsky narrowly escapes a setup during a smuggling operation, Dahl finally seems in his element as he cranks up some suspense among double-dealers. But her subsequent arrest and torture by cigarette-twirling Japanese agents has all the credibility of a Charlie Chan episode, further undermining the film’s over-determination to be historically accurate to a fault.

Pic mechanically cross-cuts among these three settings, involving mild mini-dramas including Prince’s slightly testy relationship with Mucci, Gibson’s uncontrollable second-in-charge Captain Redding (Marton Csokas) and Utinsky’s loyal but ill-fated Filipino friend Mina (Natalie Mendoza).

Consuming even more time but hardly sending the film in new, fascinating directions are a number of side stories. Until the raid actually begins in earnest at the 88-minute mark, it’s fair to wonder if the rescue is ever going to happen at all.

Unlike the tension that permeates the uphill mountain assaults in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” or the wrenching suspense leading to the blowing of the bridge in “Kwai,” this raid on Cabanatuan is as dull as it is historically precise.

Bratt tapped into the blood flow of playwright Miguel Pinero for his scary portrait in “Pinero,” but here he seems removed from Mucci and too brooding to be a leader who can stir men. Prince’s strategic intelligence is only hinted at by Franco in yet another far-from-convincing perf by this still-developing actor.

Fiennes adopts what’s now become his patented 100-yard stare for times when the script fails him. Thesps in costume designer Lizzy Gardiner’s good civilian garb, such as Nielsen and Mendoza, ironically come across as more believable and gutsier, while Montano creditably holds up the Filipino side of the battle.

All too telling about the film’s failure to connect at the most basic levels is how the concluding reel of archival footage of the rescue carries infinitely greater dramatic power than the preceding two hours-plus.

In a production package that’s solid but uninspired, the desaturated color lensing by Peter Menzies Jr. (with father Peter managing significant second unit camerawork) is a bit too overdone, resulting in a bland look.

The Great Raid

Production

A Miramax Films release of a Marty Katz production in association with Lawrence Bender Prods. Produced by Katz, Lawrence Bender. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon, Michelle Raimo Aboua. Co-producer, Anthony Winley. Directed by John Dahl. Screenplay, Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, based on the books "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" by William B. Breuer and "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color/B&W, Panavision widescreen), Peter Menzies Jr.; editors, Pietro Scalia, Scott Chestnut; music, Trevor Rabin; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; supervising art director, Bill Booth; art director, Michael Rumpf; set designer, Mitch Cass; set decorator, Rolland Pike; costume designer, Lizzy Gardiner; makeup/hair, Viv Mepham; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Paul "Salty" Brincat; sound designer, Fury & Grace; supervising sound editors, Jon Johnson, Bruce Stubblefield; visual effects supervisor, Chris Godfrey; special effects supervisor, Brian Cox; visual effects, Animal Logic Films; stunt coordinators, Chris Anderson, Stottie, Darko Tuskan; senior military adviser, Capt. Dale Dye; associate producer, Mark Turnbull; assistant director, Turnbull; second unit director, Vic Armstrong; second unit camera, Peter Menzies Sr.; casting, Bonnie Timmerman. Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, July 27, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 132 MIN. (English, Japanese, Tagalog dialogue)

With

Lt. Colonel Mucci - Benjamin Bratt Captain Prince - James Franco Margaret Utinsky - Connie Nielsen Major Gibson - Joseph Fiennes Captain Redding - Marton Csokas Major Nagai - Motoki Kobayashi Captain Fisher - Robert Mammone Mina - Natalie Mendoza Pajota - Cesar Montano
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