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by Willie Waffle

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The Great Raid

Set in 1945, James Franco stars as Captain Prince - a young Army Ranger stationed in the Philippines who specializes in designing and planning military operations. Now, he has been called upon for the most important mission of his career.

As explained in the movie (for anyone who isn't up on World War II history), thousands of U.S. and allied Filipino soldiers were captured by Japanese forces while valiantly fighting during MacArthur's forced retreat to Australia in 1942 ("I shall return."). These soldiers were placed into Prisoner of War camps after the brutal Bataan Death March, and subject to inhumane incarceration for almost 3 years. In 1945, MacArthur and the American armed forces have started to take back the Philippines, and the Japanese are killing off prisoners to hide evidence of war crimes, so Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and his Rangers have been ordered to liberate the Cabanatuan POW Camp and its 511 prisoners before it is too late. It's a dangerous mission, but Mucci believes his men are up to the job, and trusts in Prince's daring plan to take over the camp.

Can Mucci and his troops defeat the Japanese and save the prisoners?

While not a horrible film, The Great Raid is very average with an old fashioned World War II-movie feeling you might find on cable some Sunday afternoon starring John Wayne or Spencer Tracy. It's full of likable heroes, doesn't sugarcoat the behavior of enemies and makes you feel good about the men who fought so bravely, but The Great Raidjust isn't great until it starts to focus on the raid itself.

Director John Dahl and writers Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro need to spend more time focusing on the raid and its planning. Early in The Great Raid, Dahl tries to include too much material as we go from POW Camp to Ranger Base to Manila Underground/War Resistance, but the underground/resistance effort is the least germane of the sub-plots and should have been cut out of the film. While those characters and stories would make for a very compelling movie in their own right (many men and women secretly supplied the POW camps with needed medicine, which put their own lives in danger, and they deserve to be more than filler in a different movie), this subplot doesn't serve much of a purpose in this movie, and takes valuable time away from better developing the other characters who are central to the raid.

It felt like Dahl, Bernard and Miro were trying to force in a love story as we watch underground leader Nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) and POW Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) pine away for each other as they hope the end of the war will give them a chance to realize their once forbidden love for each other. Believe me, the raid and the POWs desperate fight for survival is compelling enough. WE DON'T ALWAYS NEED A FREAKING LOVE STORY! Because Dahl dedicates time to the love story, we don't get more time with the movie's best actors and best plot.

Bratt is a very good actor who gets to show his chops in The Great Raid. It's not a flashy performance or one full of amazing, inspirational speeches, but a measured, solid portrayal of a brave, fierce and dedicated leader. He brings a raging intensity to the role and finds ways to make us aware of how much Mucci cares about the men he leads and the importance of the mission in one of the few great dialogue exchanges in the film.

Sadly, Franco is not given much of the same opportunity. He is fine as the raid's planner, but he can do much more than this, and might have had more lines if Dahl and the writers didn't feel the need to include all of the Manila Underground stuff. Fiennes is believable and solid as the POW leader who suffers from malaria, but gets upstaged by Marton Csokas who plays the angry Captain Redding - a POW who is itching to fight or sneak his way out of the camp as he watches his captors mistreat his buddies and fellow soldiers (Csokas was also very good in Kingdom of Heaven, so watch for him over the next few years). As far as Mark "Mr. Kelly Ripa" Consuelos (I know you All My Children fans and Kelly Ripa kooks want to know), he isn't in the movie very much. He gets a couple scenes, but nothing to write home about. Mark should cash that check before someone at Miramax tries to ask for some of their money back.

Dahl does do a great job when he's focused on the raid. He moves the audience with ups and downs as the operation runs behind schedule, faces obstacles and sits on he brink of being a failure. He films great action scenes as the anticipated battle is waged by the liberators, and handles the rangers' ultimate crisis and possible solution with great skill, careful to show us how everyone pitches in.

The Great Raid is a passable movie, but nothing to rush out and see.

2 Waffles (Out Of 4)

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