Image courtesy of www.impawards.com
Benjamin Bratt……….Lt. Colonel Mucci
James Franco……….Captain Prince
Joseph Fiennes……….Major Gibson
Max Martini……….1st Sgt. Sid “Top” Wojo
Connie Nielsen……….Margaret Utinsky
Can an epic grand finale of amazing proportions make up for a rather slow and somewhat boring build? That’s what The Great Raid seems to be answering, as a 90 minute slow build builds into perhaps the best action sequence of the year over the last 45.
Set in 1945 in the Philippines, The Great Raid follows the 6th Ranger Battalion in a late night raid to save over 500 prisoners of war. Captured after the initial fighting in the Pacific theatre of World War 2, the subsequent rout of Japanese forces by a returning General Douglas Macarthur in the Philippines would begin the downfall of the Japanese. With the Allied forces closing in on victory, the Japanese went from just brutalizing prisoners of war to outright executions.
Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and led by Captain Prince (James Franco), the Sixth Ranger battalion is given a mission to rescue 500 prisoners of war from the Cabanatuan POW Camp. Thirty miles behind enemy lines, the Rangers pulled off one of the most daring and the most successful raid in U.S military history. The Great Raid follows three central storyline arcs that culminate with the aforementioned intense finale.
Mucci and Prince prepare their inexperienced soldiers for their first real sign of combat. Draftees who have known nothing but training, they are heavy on condition and light on experience. An ROTC graduate, Prince is charged with developing a plan to rescue the troops from a man he would draw inspiration from.
Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) and 1st Sgt. Wojo (Max Martini) lead the imprisoned troops, trying to survive despite the brutality of their captors. Morale is low, as being imprisoned for three years has drained their resolve.
While the prisoners are being maltreated, a nurse by the name of Margaret (Connie Nielsen) works with the Filipino resistance to smuggle in food and medicine being withheld. With malaria and other diseases breaking out amongst the POWs as the Japanese withhold basic medical care and provide barely minimal provisions for food and drink, what little Margaret and her friends can provide helps keep some semblance of hope alive. Margaret and Gibson are madly in love, and yet neither Gibson nor Margaret will admit or acknowledge it.
With these three separate stories to tell, The Great Raid is built to climax with the raid itself. But John Dahl makes a mistake in trying to build the drama from the three separate storylines by slowing the place down. With time of the essence and only a few days to pull off the operation, there is a sense of urgency on part of Mucci and his men. But the sort of dramatic tension required is not provided; there is no sense that time is running out, only that there’s plenty of time remaining. What should be gripping, tight-fisted, edge-of-your-seat style tension dissolves quickly as the film plods on for much more time than required. There’s too much time devoted to small things and not enough time for the big ones; there is much wasted on things that don’t matter as much as the mission itself. The movie is padded too much and could use some more judicious editing.
And some more editing would have been helpful with a lot of the acting. While Franco and Bratt are solid, there plenty of point where the movie sinks to almost direct to video level acting at points. Most of those scenes felt added on or forced in there; Dahl seems to be working with more time than he does material and it shows.
But all this disappears during the last 40 minutes. While not built very well, the final action scene is engrossing and powerful enough that it makes up for its shaky beginnings. Dahl is at his peak; while the plan is set up and explained out before it begins; when it is executed it is superb. The soldiers move like real combat soldiers and the movie goes from the slow lane to warp speed.