War often presents us with horrible choices: Fall asleep in the theater or fall asleep to the History Channel? That’s the question posed by The Great Raid, a WWII movie so parched, so Reader’s Digest expository, so utterly expressionless, it confuses taciturn Greatest Generation nobility with paralysis. Raid, conceived in the wake of Sept. 11 and shelved for two years, looks like a historical reenactment staged by animatronic Boy Scouts. It’s the true tale of a daring mission to retrieve U.S. prisoners of war from a Japanese death camp in the Philippines, but director John Dahl, in his pacing, seems more intent on evoking the Bataan Death March. How did the nimble indie moralist of Red Rock West find himself in this quagmire? Raid, arcing brass fanfares aside, is no kin to Saving Private Ryan, or even The Big Red One. No, Dahl has decolorized The Green Berets.
The main problem? Raid lacks a center. It’s an exhausted sprawl with multiple story foci, none of them terribly compelling. There’s the rescue unit of Army Rangers, headed by stolid Lieut. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and equally stolid Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco, whose main duty is to overwhelm the enemy with voice-over). They’re attempting something brazen, but unless you’re a military historian, you’d never guess. There are the POWs, headed by stolid, malarial Major Gibson (the dependably cadaverous Joseph Fiennes). And there’s Margaret (Gladiator‘s Connie Nielsen), the stolid nurse Gibson loves from afar, who’s running the resistance in Manila. Stolidly. Dahl chisels not a sliver of nuance from all this wood. The Japanese are mere villains, so don’t hold your breath for a Colonel Saito. But Dahl does vividly re-create that least heralded burden of war: the boredom.