The famed rescue mission which the movie purports to reenact took place in 1945 as Douglas MacArthur was about to return to the inglorious site of his departure three years earlier, after which some 70,000 Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese army at Bataan. Only 500 of those prisoners still survive -- the others claimed by the infamous Bataan Death March -- but they, too, will be killed by their captors unless a rescue mission liberates them first. Alternating between the leaders of the raid (Benjamin Bratt and James Franco), the prisoners in the camp (Joseph Fiennes and Marton Csokas) and the underground activities of a nurse (Connie Nielsen) desperately working to keep the prisoners alive until help can liberate them, "The Great Raid" clearly aspires to the greats of the genre -- films like "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Great Escape." But there's an inherent irony, even cynicism, to the approaches of David Lean and John Sturges that seems beyond the grasp of director John Dahl here. It may be that he has been hamstrung by the screenplay -- which would certainly account for the uninspired direction -- or it could be that Dahl, normally associated with thrillers like "The Last Seduction" and "Red Rock West," is out of his element.
Whatever the case, the film never springs to life and consciously avoids broaching any subject that might present its characters as less than boldly heroic. The moral ambiguity and ambivalence that are at the heart of all great war films have been stripped away in favor of facile cheerleading, almost all of which wears painfully thin after more than 90 minutes of uneventful hand-wringing has resulted in nothing even remotely resembling a raid. When the titular raid finally does arrive, it's a tiresome, anticlimactic affair that makes one yearn desperately for the resurrection of filmmakers like Lean and Sturges who knew precisely how to wrest life from historical events. Starring Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Connie Nielsen, Marton Csokas and Joseph Fiennes. Directed by John Dahl. Written by Carlo Barnard and Doug Miro. Produced by Mary Katz and Lawrence Bender. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for strong war violence and brief language. Running time: 132 min