Delayed since 2003, John Dahl’s dust-collecting WWII chronicle The Great Raid finally arrives with the dull thud of a bomb that fails to detonate on impact. Adapted from William B. Breuer’s The Great Raid on Cabanatuan and Hampton Sides’s Ghost Soldiers, this rote, creaky POW rescue mission saga unfolds as a trifurcated narrative, following the ordeal of American prisoners at a Japanese penitentiary stronghold in the Philippines, a beautiful spy in Manila smuggling medicine into the camp, and a motley ranger unit assigned to liberate them. Taking place over a five-day stretch in January, 1945, Dahl’s based-on-actual-events adventure uses extensive backlighting to mimic the downy, melodramatic visual design of ‘40s war films, a fitting cinematographic structure considering his old-school story’s romantic black-and-white depiction of heroic Americans battling nefarious Japanese monsters.
While one can imagine John Wayne starring in such a square, against-all-odds military movie, it’s difficult to accept most of Dahl’s miscast performers in their respective roles, whether it be Joseph Fiennes as twitchy malaria-suffering captive Major Gibson, Benjamin Bratt occasionally lapsing into a Southern “hoo-ah!” marine patois as ranger Lt. Colonel Mucci, or baby-faced James Franco as the captain charged with drawing up the smash-and-grab rescue plan. That the film also features Mr. Kelly Ripa—Mark Consuelos—in a bit-part as a religiously-minded grunt only further exacerbates the pestilent pretty-boy atmosphere infecting this otherwise stolidly told tale, which Dahl shoots with a spic-and-span coherence that reaches its efficient apex during the swift, thunderous prison break.
For the preceding two hours, however, The Great Raid makes due with a turgid make-believe romance between the fictional Major Gibson and real-life espionage hero Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) and a military operation that provides scant expository detail—instead of specifics on how the supposedly dangerous mission is being executed, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro’s script, jumping between its three storylines, is content to simply move the ranger corps along as if no obstacles were in their path. A newsreel footage coda finally allows Dahl to revel in the unabashed rah-rah patriotism his dramatization never quite achieves. Nonetheless, the most memorable sights in this stodgy film aren’t the real-life visages of WWII heroes being welcomed home after years of POW hell but, rather, the sight of Filipino captain Juan Pajota (Cesar Montano)—after successfully aiding Mucci’s campaign against the hated, racist Japanese—giving a laughable “job well done” bow to his fellow indigenous comrades before disappearing into the exotic landscape from whence he came.