There are few genres with as much inherent coolness as war movies. It's a given you're going to have interesting characters, world-changing events, moving acts of heroism, and at least one or two really cool explosions.
You'd think that'd go double for movies based on true events. And indeed, the extraordinary event The Great Raid is based on is a promising one: Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are being held captive in a Japanese war camp in the Philippines; with the Japanese knowing they're losing the war, the POWs are subjected to abuse, malnutrition, and the threat of death for over three years. The surviving soldiers—shakily represented by ailing Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), are soon to be killed.
Enter Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Robert Prince (James Franco), who are given the task of breaking the soldiers out of the war camp. Facing a checklist of the aforementioned war movie clichés—incredible odds, overpowering opponents, shaky intelligence—they're set to attempt what could be either a disaster or one of the greatest acts of heroism in WWII.
Despite the plot's turns, The Great Raid turns out to be largely the former. The story with the prisoners falls utterly flat, thanks to a listless Fiennes (and an utterly unnecessary subplot that has a supremely annoying Connie Nielsen as an agent for the Filipino Underground). The Japanese, meanwhile, fit easily into the roles of stereotypical foreign villains.
Much more interesting are Mucci and Prince (Benjamin Bratt and James Franco, both underrated actors who're largely wasted here)—especially as they take on the help of grassroots Filipino soldiers. But director John Dahl seems bored with them, too—everything proceeds as if driven by requisite plot beats instead of actual events. By the time the much-anticipated great raid comes (and it is pretty great: exciting, big, unpredictable, dramatic) the audience has been lulled into a stupor. But still, some backhanded props go to Dahl—taking what could've been a great war movie and making it this boring is a great feat in its own right. ■