Maybe if they just called it The Raid it would have been easier to swallow -- because the word "great" doesn't have any place in this one. Based on the purportedly hard-to-get-through book Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, this muddled, long and dull adaptation tells the true story about the daring rescue of more than 500 American prisoners at a Japanese war camp in the early days of 1945. The rescue certainly happened, but there's just too much added and unbelievable business going on in this movie.
The film's opening segments are superb: black-and-white historical footage of war scenes, along with narration covering events leading up to the story. Shifting to color, there's a horrific sequence showing what went on at another camp that Japanese soldiers had to flee from. It's an astonishing piece of film in that while it's hard to take, it's also hard to look away from.
The closing segments are also quite good, with massive explosions and loads of gunfire all going off at once as a squad of elite soldiers makes a massive attack on the film's main camp just before going in to rescue the POWs.
But there's nearly two hours between these scenes in which actors move like snails and speak in soft monotones. Except for a (most likely fictional) side story about a nurse in Manila who's stealing medicine for the prisoners, no one does much of anything.
A big problem is that the film feels padded, with side plots galore -- about that smuggled medicine, about a possible long-ago love affair, about the attitudes of the Japanese captors toward their prisoners. Actually, that last part might have been better if it went beyond a commanding officer shouting, in Japanese, so no Americans could understand it, "You surrender like cowards, then you run like dogs," after a failed escape attempt.
Too much of the story is told in voice-over by Captain Prince (James Franco, in sleep-inducing slow talk), the officer who, it's explained, is directing the rescue mission. But some pages of the script seem to be missing, as it feels a lot more like his commanding officer Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt, square-jawed and pipe-smoking and looking too darn clean for this movie) is the one in charge.
The 120 assembled Rangers are told before they set out that this is going to be a textbook-style raid. But nobody tells them the textbook is Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. (Sorry, that's the dullest-sounding book I could find on Google.) And their pep talk is peppered with cliched dialogue including (my favorite), "We'll rescue them or we'll die trying."
To the film's credit, the prisoners, some of whom have been in the camp for three years, look in believably bad shape. They're thin, worn out and many are in need of quinine pills to cure their malaria (though I think there was a screw-up, and the actors playing them were given Valium instead). And there is one very nice piece of almost wordless acting -- a show of quiet emotionalism -- when the prisoners discover and help themselves to a cache of Red Cross rations that had been hidden from them.
There are most likely going to be some international complaints that the Japanese are portrayed as soulless animals here -- although the prissy and vile Major Nagai (Motoki Koboyashi) does take the time to listen to some opera on the radio while he's interrogating the gaunt, bedraggled and disease-ridden Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes).
But there are plenty of other worries besides possible negative feedback. The Rangers are supposed to go through a difficult time on their long march, but, lucky them, they manage to have a nice outdoor candle-lit dinner in the midst of it. The heroic nurse in Manila, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), feels just plain tacked-on, an invention so the film can have a hint of a Pearl Harbor-like love interest.
It's explained near the beginning that the whole operation is to take four days. So it's a relief when, after all the non-action and quiet talk, "Day 4" finally flashes up on the screen. But don't hold your breath; at that point, the end is not near, and there's a "Day 5." Worst of all, however, the film concludes with a wholly unnecessary and blatantly fake Hollywood ending that's supposed to tug at the heartstrings while addressing the futility of war.
The Great Raid, Rated: R, Directed by John Dahl, Starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, Connie Nielsen.