Hippo Manchester
August 18, 2005

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The Great Raid (R)
By Amy Diaz

A group of Army Rangers mounts a daring raid to save the careers of some formerly promising actors in The Great Raid, a movie roughly based on a rescue mission in the Philippines during World War II.

In the real story, the Rangers, outnumbered by their Japanese foes, naturally, attempt to rescue 500-some POWs who had served in the Bataan death march and languished for years in Japanese camps. These plucky Americans had lost much of their body weight but none of their spirit, as the movie tells us. Glossed to a shine with a little “inspired by” movie magic, one of those POWs carries the torch of unspoken love for a nurse who has stayed in Manila to attempt to smuggle him medicine and participate in resistance activities. The Rangers attempting to save their fellow soldiers feature a headstrong commander and a more thoughtful young captain.

That’s three, count ‘em, three separate story lines for a movie that can barely make good use of one. But, as I said, this might just be the last desperate chance for some of these past-their-fame actors.

The story kicks off with exposition that seems to begin at the cooling of the earth’s crust and cover (with black and white footage and a cringe-inducing voice-over) every major historical event until 1944 and the American movements in the Pacific theater. After this World War II for Dummies ends, we finally get to meet Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), the aforementioned brave POW who tries to keep his soldiers alive and hopeful of eventual release all while he keeps the torch burning for nurse Margaret (Connie Nielsen). He has but sweet fantasies of Margaret because she was always the wife of his commanding officer and Gibson is a darn good guy, too good to let his feelings lead her astray. Margaret stuck around in part to help Gibson and the other POWs and in part because her passport (Lithuanian) allowed her to pretend she was from a neutral country. So, being of noble build herself, Margaret joined the Filipino resistance and started smuggling quinine to the US troops.

Meanwhile, a couple of dozen miles away behind the American front line, Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Capt. Prince (James Franco) are planning a raid on the POW camp. The army is close to retaking the part of the country where the POWs reside. Rescue before the army moves in is important because the last time the army got this close to a POW camp the Japanese killed all the soldiers who had managed to survive the hellish conditions. Mucci is raring to go but Prince is more reluctant — both men must figure out how to make the mission work in less than a week.

The Great Raid feels like it is all exposition, no plot. I was a good a hour into the movie before I realized what I was seeing on screen was supposed to be the movie itself and not just the build up to the main story. Perhaps it’s the incorporation of the unnecessary nurse plotline. Perhaps it’s the fact that we spend so much time with the POWs even though they are, in terms of the story’s forward motion, doing nothing. But the actual raid of The Great Raid gets lost in what feels like peripheral storytelling.

The romance is unnecessary and seems to have been tacked on in a failed attempt to give the story some emotional heft. The POWs tale is interesting from a historical standpoint but bogs the movie down, removing us from the military action long enough to make us forget about the rescue that lies at the heart of the story.

Ultimately, no amount of swelling music or archival photographs of the real-life people upon whom the movie was based can freshen up the staleness that keeps The Great Raid from even reaching the level of average.