Title: The Great Raid
Genre: Action, Drama, War
Director: John Dahl
Screenwriters: William B. Breuer
Starring: Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, James Franco
On one level, my problem with The Great Raid is that I wish it were a different movie. I could see this other movie in my head as I was watching, taking shape almost as vividly as the movie on screen, and sometimes more so, since the film we’re actually shown is a wishy-washy muddle that recalls Enemy at the Gates instead of the tough, uncompromising portrait of heroism that the true story demanded. I suppose this is what Ebert means when he talks about “reviewing the movie you wish had been made instead of the one that was actually made.”
Still, I must plead innocent of any wrong doing, as the film is just plain ineffective as it stands. The ads grandiloquently compare The Great Raid to Saving Private Ryan, but in fact John Dahl’s movie mysteriously wants nothing more than to be a period piece, the sort of lush, sweeping epic that often gets consideration at Oscar time. To that end, the screenplay by first-timers Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, throw in everything but the kitchen sink — a love story, battles with malaria, travails of the Phillipine underground resistance — and, seemingly, do everything to obscure the compelling mission that does, after all, comprise the title of the film.
The raid on the Cabanatuan Japanese POW camp toward the end of World War II was, by all accounts, a tremendously risky affair, and the men who pulled it off were heroes of the first order. It’s a wonder, then, that the film strips it of urgency almost entirely. This achievement is even more impressive considering that the screenplay specifically sets a timeframe for the prisoners’ rescue, asserting that with Allied forces rapidly recapturing the Phillipines, the Japanese will likely murder all the prisoners within a week, maybe less. Hell, we even see a massacre of American POWs in one of the opening scenes, with hundreds being burned alive.
Why, then, do we never feel the clock ticking? How come the battalion marching on the camp — led by the vaguely brash Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Capt. Prince (James Franco), who is a Stanford grad and wants you to know it — can delay the mission with impunity and without us feeling the slightest pang of dread? Why can the prisoners themselves plot and negotiate without any mounting suspense as to their fate?
I’ll bloody well tell you why. It’s because a movie predicated on a ticking timebomb would do well to move as directly as possible from point A to point B. That’s not a Rule, but the way The Great Raid goes about telling its story just doesn’t work. It tries to set up three separate storylines: the soldiers attempting to march to camp undetected and raid it, the prisoners trying to steer clear of the brutal Japanese command and survive until the end of the war, and the underground resistance, led by Connie Nielsen trying to essentially maintain a holding pattern. As the movie shuffles among the plotlines, the momentum drains to zero. Each isn’t particularly compelling in itself, as the soldiers so a lot of placid talking among themselves, the prisoners essentially bide their time, and the resistance operatives continue to not be particularly relevant; together, they become a symphony of inaction.
That is not to say that the movie is uneventful. Indeed, plenty happens, and as I mentioned, I could very nearly see the movie that milks this story for all the suspense, terror and excitement it’s worth. But The Great Raid is too set in its plodding period piece ways to generate anything except mild, ultimately unsatisfied curiosity. By the time the actual raid comes around, we aren’t particularly invested in its outcome, and the sudden flurry of activity just seems like much ado about nothing. Instead of apparently taking his cues from Jean-Jacques Annaud, Dahl, whose filmography suggests nothing as tediously conventional as this, should have looked to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down for inspiration.
The only one to acquit himself in this misguided little effort is James Franco, whose clear-eyed intensity seems to come from a different, better movie. And the final images are powerful in the same way the closing shots of Rabbit-Proof Fence were powerful, though of course those came at the end of a great film. The Great Raid is based on a spectacular true story but it manages to be thoroughly unspectacular anyway.