Writer-director John Dahl established a reputation as the master of contemporary neo-noir with a trilogy of superb pulp thrillers (1989's Kill Me Again, 1992's Red Rock West, and 1994's The Last Seduction) that trafficked in shadowy worlds populated by cold-blooded femmes fatales and the hapless, easily exploited patsies who love them. Dahl then branched out into different genres, often adding noir shading to superior latter efforts like Rounders and Joy Ride. But there's precious little noir to be found in his disappointing new film The Great Raid, a lumbering, disappointingly bland war movie with little of the snap or liveliness of his early work.
Based on a true incident, The Great Raid concerns a daring raid on a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines during the waning days of World War II. The story is told from the perspectives of green but highly trained raiders, sickly prisoners, and a gorgeous nurse (Connie Nielsen, who exudes old-school glamour even in the grit and grime of war) who heads up the anti-Japanese underground resistance. Benjamin Bratt stars as the leader of the historic raid, while Joseph Fiennes plays a POW stricken by the dual plagues of malaria and lovesickness.
The Great Raid opens with an epic, pummeling gauntlet of exposition, contextualization, and stock newsreel footage that takes viewers from Pearl Harbor through the Bataan Death March and into the war's final year, stopping just short of displaying charts and pie-graphs on the war's progress. The lengthy prologue stunts the film's momentum right out of the gate, and the plodding pace does little to pick up the slack along the way. Though the dialogue works overtime to portray Bratt's officer as a fascinating, larger-than-life figure, his underwhelming performance does little to justify such grandiose talk. And where Bratt is a bland actor miscast in a part that calls for danger and charisma, the dark, charismatic James Franco is conversely wasted in a forgettable noble-lead-soldier role that calls for nothing more than a warm body to fill it. Then again, nobody here excels. The script reduces the Japanese to poorly differentiated, crisply attired heavies barking out impenetrable commands, while none of the American soldiers are developed in a particularly satisfying way, though Fiennes' tragic soldier comes closest. And the climactic raid proves thoroughly anticlimactic. An ill-advised departure for Dahl, The Great Raid reveals that he may be more comfortable in darkness than in light.