Great Raid, The (United States/Australia, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Great Raid seeks to be the kind of epic war film that was popular during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. And, unlike many recent entries in the genre, it does not seek to take a revisionist look at war. The central premise is promising: a factually-based account of a 1945 combined U.S./Philippine raid into a Japanese prison camp to free American GI's. Unfortunately, although John Dahl's film may have the length one normally expects from a war film with an ambitious trajectory, it lacks focus and the pacing is uneven. The rousing success of the final 45 minutes cannot entirely counterbalance the stumbling uncertainty of the first 90 minutes.

It is January 1945. American and Philippine forces, intent upon re-capturing the islands, are pushing the Japanese army across Luzon. Concerned that the losing army will issue a "killing order" to exterminate all of the 500+ Americans interred at the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War camp, the U.S. army prepares a plan to raid the camp and free the prisoners. In charge of the operation is Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and his right-hand man and chief strategist, Captain Prince (James Franco). Meanwhile, in the camp, we are introduced to Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) and Captain Redding (Marton Csokas), two of the most prominent Americans in captivity. Finally, a third thread follows the exploits of Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) in Manila. Margaret is a major player in the underground movement. She works to smuggle drugs to the prisoners at Cabanatuan, and is romantically linked with Gibson.

The Great Raid has two unmistakable flaws: it starts slowly and contains too many subplots. Every scene with Margaret Utinsky is a loss of time that could be better spent on the raid. At best, Margaret is a peripheral character, yet the film insists on spending nearly a quarter of its running length in her company. Her romantic attraction to Gibson is weakly motivated and executed, and does not justify her appearance. I can understand giving us glimpses into the lives of the prisoners, but Utinksy's presence does little more than to splinter The Great Raid's focus and extend the setup beyond a reasonable length.

None of the characters are well defined. Although the screenplay gives each of the primary players a defining characteristic or two, none of them grabs our sympathy. The performers, drawn primarily from the ranks of character actors and secondary stars, are adequate. Benjamin Bratt is stiff at times, making us indifferent to the Colonel's situation. Joseph Fiennes attempts to imitate Jeremy Irons, but lacks the veteran actor's graveness. Connie Nielsen is effective in a throw-away role. The best performance is given by James Franco (Peter Parker's best friend in Spider-Man), who brings spunk and swagger to Captain Prince.

From a technical and a visceral standpoint, the actual raid, which encapsulates the movie's final third, is an accomplished extended sequence. It's well paced, nicely photographed, and exciting enough to keep viewers engaged. The problem is that getting to this point can be a chore. This is an odd quality to find in a John Dahl film. Dahl, primarily a director of thrillers (Joy Ride, The Last Seduction), is known for his economy of scenes and expert pacing. Something went wrong here, and the result is a muddled movie that has a solid climax but a poor build-up. In the end, it can be said that The Great Raid tells a great story, but the telling is not as good as the story deserves.

Great Raid, The (United States/Australia, 2005)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 2005-08-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1