While the daring rescue of American soldiers from a World War II Japanese
concentration camp after the Bataan Death March and before liberation was a
great feat, this film bringing it to our attention isn't. Caught up in the
real worthiness of the subject (the biggest rescue from enemy captivity in
military history), a running time of over 2 hours unfortunately dissipates
the explosiveness it might have had.
The year is 1945 and hundreds of U.S. prisoners of war are under the imminent
threat of death by a Japanese army that has demonstrated subhuman treatment
of its captives and Tokyo's "Kill All" policy. Without mercy or humanity,
they execute every captive G.I. when their defeat by approaching allied
forces becomes inevitable. In the Cabanatuan camp in the Philippines, Japanese
commanders await similar orders while their 511 American captives bide their
Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes, "Luther"), the highest ranking American officer, is
suffering from the effects of malaria and from his separation from lover
Margaret Uttinski (Connie Nielsen). As a Catholic-aid nurse in Manila, she's
been active in the underground resistance and has managed to sneak Quinine to
Gibson to keep him alive.
The assassination policy of the Japanese army is not unknown at 6th army
headquarters stationed in Luzon, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Mucci
(Benjamin Bratt) has been assigned to penetrate enemy lines for a rescue
attempt at Cabanatuan, a task that seems strategically impossible due to
unhelpful terrain, deficient intel, and the enemy's superior numbers.
Mucci demonstrates great judgement in assigning Captain Robert Prince (James
Franco) to plan and execute the mission. It's one that calls for a strategist
with the gift of intellect and uncompromising leadership that Prince has
demonstrated. He adamently refuses to start the operation until the blanks
in intelligence, that could affect the outcome, are filled in.
Starting with a hand-picked team of 121 elite Rangers and Alamo Scouts, he
hooks up with the small army of resistance fighters led by Captain Juan Pajota
(Cesar Montano) whose intimate knowledge of the terrain and, even more
importantly, the fighting characteristics of the Japanese, proves a decisive
factor 30 miles into enemy territory.
When Margaret becomes part of a Japanese roundup and lands in a Manila jail
(and in a smoky Asian detective pic), time begins to run out. Prince finally
outlines his precision plan of attack to his officers and the assault on the
camp begins. Director John Dahl attempts to recreate what should be unfailing
natural drama from material in William B. Breuer's book, "The Great Raid on
Cabanatuan: Rescuing the Doomed Ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor" and Hampton
Sides' "Ghost Soldiers," but first-time screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug
Miro seem to have tried to include all of it and make sure we get it.
Halfway through you're about ready to surrender.
The attempt to humanize the field-and-barracks story with a feminine factor
misfires. Even Connie Nielsen, one of the most underappreciated actresses on
the planet ("Gladiator," "Demonlover"), couldn't provide enough magnetism for
this distant relationship but, worse, Bratt and Fiennes don't even deserve
their commissions. Bratt's lack of charismatic weight barely fills the
uniform, though his effort is visible. Fiennes is cast when someone thinks
they need a guy who can emote deeply. He fulfills the assignment by making it
look difficult, with a manner as polished as military brass.
Details of the assault can be trusted to be historically accurate but, while
such documentary faith may not earn big medals at the boxoffice, there's
something here that will be of appeal to anyone with a fathom of interest in
military strategy and in the performance of our troops at their best.
Patriots with an ounce of fervor should be willing to pay double or see it
twice just to help the Miramax honchos who finally took it out of a 3-year
~~ Jules Brenner