Consumers exist for every kind of movie, and some of them will see a film regardless of quality, buzz, stars, or any other factor, opting to fork over $10 solely because of the film’s genre. This is referred to as “built-in audience,” and it’s something Hollywood needs more than it may admit. The success or failure of The Dukes of Hazzard, for instance, will depend largely on the box-office habits of the built-in audience of loyal and demented fans of the original show, who would show up just to watch the General Lee spin donuts for 90 minutes even if Rob Schneider and Oprah were playing Bo and Luke. Whether it’s war films, westerns, Star Trek movies, or porn, there exists a guaranteed consumer for every film, an audience member who will show up simply because of what the movie claims to be. It is this simple viewer, this loyal but blind American, that will most benefit from The Great Raid, a plodding, dull, methodical example of how not to make a war movie. The kind of men and women who TiVo hours of the History Channel will feel right at home watching director John Dahl’s overlong, tedious tale of the rescue mission at the Cabanatuan POW camp months before the end of World War II. Anyone requiring an engaging narrative should look elsewhere.
Leading the cast of blandly handsome and instantly forgettable men are Benjamin Bratt as Lieutenant Colonel Mucci and James Franco as Captain Prince. Prince plans and designs the raid, one that would become the largest successful rescue operation in U.S. history. Set over the course of five days at the end of January 1945, The Great Raid follows Prince and Mucci as they lead their men through the jungles of the Philippines toward the camp; the efforts of the POWs to survive, led by Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) and several other indistinguishable men; and nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), who works at a hospital in Manila as part of the underground resistance, smuggling medicine into the camp. The individual plotlines are each poorly constructed in their own unique ways: Prince and Mucci are leading a large group of men with no names, and Dahl and writers Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, in their first produced screenplay, make no effort to imbue even one of the men with any kind of spark or character that would make the audience remember him. The soldiers are an army of none, a faceless mass with no personality and nothing that would make them matter to the viewer.
In another sign of bad writing, Prince narrates the first few sequences in a leaden voice-over that reappears at the end. The writers didn’t even care enough to maintain the hack device throughout the film; it’s like they forgot about it entirely and had to scramble to find something for Prince to say at the climax. Additionally, rather than have the actions or very small segments of the dialogue reflect the subtext of the film, as is common among more talented writers, Bernard and Miro give Prince little nuggets of wisdom such as “The ideal of rescuing these men outweighs its strategic value.” Thanks for pointing that out. If Spielberg couldn’t make spoken subtext convincing in Saving Private Ryan, there’s no hope for these two. A later scene even features a radio playing a woman singing a French ballad, the same one used in Ryan before the final battle. It’s comforting to know that all it takes to become a screenwriter is a word processor and a Netflix account.
In the POW camp, Gibson is the ranking officer, although his malaria keeps him from doing anything for the troops except shake in bed and pray for another truckload of quinine. His friend, Captain Redding (“Red,” because there has to be a soldier with a nickname), keeps Gibson company and tries to keep him focused on surviving the war and getting back to see Margaret. None of the dialogue in the film is original; it’s all filler, worthless blather lifted from any better war film you could imagine, but Red takes the prize for most cliches per character, with his constant uses of “buddy,” “pal,” and references to having sex with Rita Hayworth. Red’s life becomes endangered at one point, but the script is so mechanical and the character so predictable that we’re not really involved with his survival. Whether he lives or dies becomes just another unengaging plot point, one more mile to slog through on the viewer’s own road to Bataan.
Margaret’s story of fighting the Japanese government to get supplies to the POWs is the least inspiring or involving. I kept zoning out, losing track of the story’s hackneyed thread, wishing I could change the channel to something more interesting, like a test pattern. Whenever the story returned to her, I realized I’d completely forgotten where we’d left her: Is she in jail now? What happened to that girl she was with? Is Sbarro is still open? Connie Nielsen plays the role with all the subtlety she brought to pieces like Demonlover or Basic, or the overrated Gladiator. Her best job was playing Mrs. Calloway in Rushmore: The role didn’t require her to speak.
The actual raid, when it arrives in the third act, bursts with the frenetic energy and pace missing from the first two-thirds of the film, but unfortunately it’s too little, too late. Dahl shows an eye for these sequences, no doubt thanks to production designer Bruno Rubeo (Platoon) and cinematographer Peter Menzies (Die Hard with a Vengeance), but at this point in the film, it’s impossible to care about any of these lifeless cutouts we’ve spent the last nine hours with (at least it feels like nine hours). The successful raid inspires no hope in the viewer, merely a relief that the film will soon be over.
Sitting on the shelf for a couple of years, The Great Raid is one the films getting dumped on an unsuspecting public in the wake of the Weinsteins’ split with parent company Disney. If it weren’t for the delayed release, you’d think that the current administration would have commissioned the film to combat protestors by showing how good we used to be at fighting insurgents. This is the kind of B-movie with C-stars that aspires to be on the same level as the cheap, manipulative war stories Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers. When one of the main villains in The Great Raid is shot, several of the people in the theater applauded, a sad display of misguided anger that’s probably the best place to draw the line: If you’re over 50 and clap whenever the two-dimensional foreign baddie in a derivative war movie gets killed, then this is the show for you. Anyone who wants something more out of a film, especially from one with such weighty subject matter, should stay away.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()