Here’s a solid, competent WWII drama that was among the infamous films indefinately shelved by Miramax now slowly creeping out into the market following the onetime indie powerhouse turned Oscar-bait assembly line’s long-overdue dissolution. Directed by John Dahl, it details the rescue by a combined force of Army Rangers and Fillippino guerillas of American POWs (survivors of the famed “Bataan Death March”) from a Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan. Military history records this as the most successful rescue operation in modern U.S. history.
The film is basic, uncomplicated and uncluttered: The situation is set up through narration and stock footage, the rescue strategy is planned, plotted and executed by a clever officer (Benjamin Bratt) and his men. Side-stories involving a Malaria-stricken POW (Ralph Feinnes,) his medicine-smuggling unrequited love-interest (Connie Nielsen,) and a merciless Japanese officer (Motoko Kobayashi) charged with liquidating the various prison camps provide the ticking clock.
Dahl presents the material matter-of-factly, which occasionally has the effect of turning the film into a kind of performed play-by-play of the actual events rather than a narrative; the film takes informing the audience of it’s history as a priority, and for the most part it works. The actors don’t try to dominate their individual roles, and no show-offy directorial flare or meditation-on-the-nature-of-war pretense crops up to get in the way. Speaking in the terms of war movie fans, it’s definately from the “Hamburger Hill” school as opposed to the “Apocalypse Now” school.
By now, you’ve heard that the film has had an abysmal opening weekend, debuting all the way down in the number 10 spot. The reason why, I’m afraid, is that all those things that make this a surefire safe bet for history buffs and WWII aficionados especially make it something of a tough nut to crack for audiences otherwise: There’s nary any tacked-on introspection or extraneous drama to be found, which means that those seeking a “war as a backdrop for blank” entry in the vein of “Pearl Harbor” will be sorely dissapointed. This is a movie about strategy and history, which just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But history fans, those seeking a solid war movie or the sadly dwindling numbers of WWII veterans (including my late grandfather, who fought in the Phillippines and whom I’m told was an active participant in one or more of the Bataan rescue operations,) this should be a welcome entry in the genre. It will find it’s audience on DVD, without question, but it’s really worth your time right now.
FINAL RATING: 8/10