A drama like the "The Great Raid" reminds us that one of the best things that ever happened to the movies was World War II.
The war was, and is, the filmmaker's perfect global conflict. Not counting documentaries (and there have been dozens), can anyone possibly imagine an Iraq war film hitting the theaters this week? Next week? How about ever? Pro or con aside, the Iraq issues are too complex, too controversial, too fraught with nervous doubt to provide the kind of black-hat-white-hat dynamic needed for that free-floating feeling we call entertainment.
But WWII? No problem. "The Great Raid," based on books by William B. Breuer and Hampton Sides and directed by the redoubtable John Dahl ("The Last Seduction"), goes back to the cinematic roots of the original Axis of evil, particularly the imperial ethos of Japan, under which surrender was weakness, and "inferior" peoples were subject to the whims of their conqueror. Thereby a world was imperiled - or, in the case of "The Great Raid," 500 American soldiers imprisoned on the Philippines and doomed to death.
It's an old-fashioned film, in many, many ways - including its structure, its sense of rhythm, and its unwavering presentation of good as good, and evil as evil.
There isn't a great development of character, just type: Benjamin Bratt, doing a commendable Clark Gable, is Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, who must lead a once-ragtag-now-crackerjack team of Army Rangers into the Philippines to get the soldiers out. Masterminding the rescue is the younger but oh-so-savvy Captain Prince (James Franco), who worships Mucci, but isn't afraid to assert himself for the good of the mission. The rest of the cast seems homogeneous in terms of ethnicity and class (a bow to historical reality), but each, on a personal level, occupies a predetermined slot in the WWII movie template.
Have we forgotten a story line? Oh yes: In Manila, the statuesque Danish beauty Connie Nielsen plays Margaret, a nurse at the heart of the Filipino resistance movement. (Does she stand out? It seems an obvious question....) To director Dahl's credit, this three-headed plot machine - POW camp, approaching GIs, resistance movement - doesn't become as lead-footed as it might have. But it doesn't exactly dance its way toward D-Day either.
Still, there's genuine tension in the film, whether it involves Nielsen's character surreptitiously emptying drug vials, or an escapee being returned to the death camp, or Mucci's men creeping their way toward their objective.
Dahl needn't have let his actors deliver their lines with quite so much solemnity, or let the music swell quite so heroically, especially during those moments when we've already gotten the point. But overheated acting and bulked-up direction are a lot older than even John Wayne, whose spirit casts a none-too-gentle shadow over "The Great Raid."
• Rated R for strong war violence and brief language.