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The Great Raid Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Great Raid Review
    After a fairly limited theatrical run in the States, and no sign of it in cinemas so far on these shores, Miramax's The Great Raid, purportedly a true story that has never been told, bears all the hallmarks of a film that nobody even wanted to see. This R3 Hong Kong release is not the Director's Cut that has surfaced on R1 although, from what I've heard, there doesn't appear to be much difference between the two. Now, you would expect that a movie so poorly received (it gained mainly lacklustre reviews, at best) to have little going for it. But I'm a sucker for war movies. I love elite troops going on a death-or-glory high risk operation with the odds stacked considerably against them, and The Great Raid, on face value at any rate, seemed to fit the bill to a tee. And it is also quite nice to sit down to a movie with no real pre-conceptions about it. I wasn't fussed on the cast, to be honest, and there will be more on that later, but the theme of the little-filmed conflict in the Philippines appealed to me, and once you know that ex-Marine Captain Dale Dye is on-hand to advise and train the actors and crew, it is pretty much a dead cert that the action scenes will have some realistic clout to them.

    “You're the best trained, least proven battalion in this army. This is your chance to do something about it.”

    One immediately sad thing that strikes me about this film and the events that it depicts, is the need the makers felt they had to provide such a lengthy prologue with which to educate the masses of their tale's true historical context. It's sad because they honestly believe that this movie-watching generation have no comprehension of the Second World War and, more specifically, the operations fought in the Pacific. Now, it may be true that many today do not know much about this theatre of engagement, but it is a bit naïve to think that they couldn't grasp the rudiments of this particularly savage conflict just from the plot alone. I mean, how many kids out there knew the background to the Roman campaign in Germania circa AD 145? But I don't recall Ridley Scott's Gladiator requiring more than just a few brief paragraphs of loose text to set the scene. The effect of this archive-heavy lecture is one of unnecessary tedium and, unfortunately, this technical sermonising style seeps deeply into the movie, as well, leading to a rather dry viewing experience, overall.

    “There are too many unknowns. I can't guarantee the safety of the prisoners.”

    Detailing the admittedly amazing true-life rescue mission undertaken by the newly-trained and organised 6th Ranger Battalion to free American POWs from their hellish captivity in a Japanese camp in Cabanatuan, Bataan, the film adapts the books “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides and “The Great Raid On Cabanatuan” by William B. Breuer in an attempt to redress the injustice done to the men who fought and died in this blighted, and forsaken, part of the world. Once America had been drawn into the war after the catastrophic attack on Pearl Harbour, their push on the Japanese initially ended in further disaster, with thousands of their troops left stranded, surrounded and defenceless, on a string of islands in the overwhelming possession of a pitiless enemy. A tragic series of tactical - and mainly political - blunders then conspires to leave them at the mercy of the Japanese when the US Government swings its war-machine around to face the threat coming from Hitler in Europe, and only after years of cruel incarceration, with torture, the infamous death marches and mass executions a daily routine, does the chance of evacuation appear on the star-spangled horizon. So, at the tail end of the War, the opportunity arises for a one-shot, do-or-die mission to get in and get the ravaged boys back before the Japanese, who are running scared from the allied mass invasion taking place, massacre them in a final act of defiance. Sounds great, doesn't it? A great pitch, a great momentum. A great film, then? Well, no, actually. Not really. I'm sorry to say that The Great Raid is, in many ways, as lacklustre as those others reviewers intimated ... but I still found that I enjoyed it in the main, although I think I was being a little sympathetic to a story that I greatly admire.

    “Do you have a reason to survive this war?”

    “I'd like to be here for your surrender.”

    Taking a three-way stance on the material, Director John Dahl, attacks his objective with a determination to keep things realistic and un-flashy. He has us involved with the prisoners, under the influence of Joseph Fiennes' beleaguered Major Gibson, as they struggle with life amid mass-burnings, shootings and starvation, their traumas all very Tenko-ish and strangely, considering the brutality on show, un-moving. A fatal flaw. The next prong of the narrative assault chronicles the attempts of the Philippine underground resistance, led by moralistic and strong-willed nurse Margaret, played pretty well by Connie Nielsen, as she tries to supply information to the allies and get food and aid to the prisoners. A noble crusader, Nielsen's character is actually an amalgam of several real-life women who risked their lives under the noses of the Japanese occupying forces. But, as worthy as this course of subplot is, it is the military effort to free the men that we are most interested in, the gung-ho glory boys who are going to bring home the bacon with derring-do and righteous payback. However, Dahl and the people he has cast in the roles of the rescuers, have distinctly other ideas about the mettle and the resolve of the Rangers forging a path for others to follow. Although, still the area of the film that is the most successful, there is a major lack of charisma and gravity exuding from each of the soldiers that results in an unfortunate restless, ho-hum attitude in the viewer. My initial fears about the cast were, in my opinion, well-founded because none of them apply much more than the bare minimum of depth to their respective roles. They didn't have to act their little socks off, but a bit more conviction and humanity would have paid dividends. And, well ... talent would have helped a lot, too.

    “This woman is the head of an underground movement.”

    Playing Col. Mucci is one of the least effective actors I've seen in recent years - Benjamin Bratt, who has never done anything even slightly memorable, existing in a bland, unappealing vacuum that paints him as cinema's ultimate grey man. Which, in this case, is woeful casting because the character he plays, who was the true guy in charge of the operation, was widely regarded as the P.T. Barnum of the campaign, an extroverted go-getter, very much in the mould of the flamboyant, egotistical General Custer from almost a century before. Never one to set the screen alight, Bratt is sadly given very little opportunity to shine here either, in a role that is emphatically one-note and rather clichéd. In fact, he's not all that bad, I hasten to add, but there's just nothing that he brings to the stoic Cavalry throwback that makes him stand out as one of the War's most forthright and courageous commanders. A great pity and the fault of the writers, the director and the star combined. James Franco's Captain Prince is the guy that stipulates the by-the-book manner in which the mission must be run. A highly educated young man, Prince is the battalion's key strategist. A man who just wants to do his bit and then go home to his wife, he possesses an analytical mind that will not let the mission take unnecessary risks in the rush to get to their objective, thus putting him at loggerheads with his commanding officer, who believes that speed is of the essence. However, this grudge match is as terribly under-developed as the foot-rot that is plaguing the young soldier. Keeping his handicap quiet and marching doggedly on is meant to instil our admiration, but Franco never injects any flicker of emotional resonance with us, acting merely like a robot going through the motions. Spider-Man's Harry Osborne may have been an annoying young buck, but Franco looks even younger and more fresh-faced here in his combat fatigues. A sub-par actor normally, he still performs the soldierly aspects of his character quite adequately, but that is thanks more to the rigorous, by-the-numbers routine drilled into him by Captain Dale Dye's boot camp than anything that he brings to the screen. But the worst performer in the piece is, without doubt, Joseph Feinnes. His bug-eyed reactions to the horrifying atrocities he is forced to witness in the camp elicit little belief or sympathy. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that he's just not doing right - and it may be simply that I truly don't rate him as an actor - but I couldn't get involved in his predicament whatsoever. His emotions didn't grip me and his ordeal, as well as that of the other poor souls in the camp, came across as merely perfunctory. But perhaps the errors committed here come from a source deeper than the performances that put a lid on the tale. We know they are going to be rescued and, thus, the ultimate moments of salvation seem a touch too anti-climatic, severely lacking the power of saviour and victim confrontation - done so much better in the Gene Hackman starring Uncommon Valour and, God help us, even Rambo (only kidding about Rambo there, folks!) - that could have been the emotional highpoint. And, by rights, should have been.

    “Without their hatred, there wouldn't be your love.”

    The action, when it comes, is actually very good, but the style is founded on a gritty realism that lessens the tension amid the eventual pyrotechnics. Now, when I say realism, I'm not talking about Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down visceral, in-your-face hellfire blood 'n' guts, but rather a quick and accurate recreation of technically savvy, fire and move combat. The snatch-and-grab military choreography is splendidly portrayed, yet despite its attention to detail, it still loses much in the way of excitement. We certainly get the lovingly-evoked anticipation of the coming raid with a great covert approach to the camp, very reminiscent of the Zulus slowly creeping towards Rorke's Drift, and we feel the urgent need to get in there and get the prisoners out fast. But the decision to adhere strictly to the basic non-gloss manoeuvring and not engage in any flamboyant heroics actually backfires because it sort of denies us much of the pay-off that we've been craving after all that has gone before, leaving a vague thumb-twiddling denouement that could have been avoided. But there are many good moments, too. The night-crossing beneath a Jap-held bridge has the requisite hold-your-breath instance, and also features a nice image of a line of Rangers ducking their heads collectively back into the shadows when a thirsty sentry comes down to the river for a drink. The “Alamo Scouts”, who are repeatedly sent back out to reconnoitre the camp - even in broad daylight - are such a cool-monikered bunch, and the Philippine fighters stage a convincingly taut last-stand action to hold off Japanese reinforcements. A final one-on-one brawl is a little out of place and definitely smacks of Hollywood finally sticking an action-flavoured oar in and hey, in line with what I said earlier, I actually liked it, proving the point about theatrics sometimes providing a richness that sticking to authenticity can often eliminate.

    Not a great film then, but The Great Raid is still a valiant hark back to the old school, non-muscle war pics that used to entertain me as a kid. It's a worthy story, but the film lacks the spectacle, star-power and energy to raise it much above the likes of a TV movie of the week. A film I ended up liking a lot less than I thought I would.