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Originally published Friday, August 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Complex story, uncomplicated characters in WWII drama "Great Raid"

The war in the Pacific is so rarely dramatized these days that John Dahl's "The Great Raid" has considerable novelty value. Based on Hampton Sides'...

Special to The Seattle Times

The war in the Pacific is so rarely dramatized these days that John Dahl's "The Great Raid" has considerable novelty value.

Based on Hampton Sides' book "Ghost Soldiers" and William B. Breuer's "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan," it focuses on five days in January 1945, when U.S. soldiers stationed at Luzon liberated the Allied survivors of the Bataan Death March. More than 500 men had been waiting three years in the Philippines for a rescue; all were in danger of being executed by the Japanese.

The movie is narrated by James Franco, who plays one of the rescuers, Capt. Robert Prince. It's a sensible solution to telling a complex story, and there's nothing wrong with what Franco does with the role — or with Benjamin Bratt's stoic performance as the leader of the rescue operation — but the characters come across as standard-issue military types.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Great Raid" with Benjamin Bratt and James Franco. Directed by John Dahl, from a screenplay by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro. 133 minutes. Rated R for violence.

Connie Nielsen (so vibrant in the recent Danish film "Brothers") does bring some passion to the role of a Catholic aid worker who risks death by cooperating with the Filipino underground; her brushes with Japanese and Filipino authorities generate much of the film's tension. A starved-looking Joseph Fiennes is convincing as the malaria-ravaged prisoner of war who loves her. Too bad their story isn't given more weight.

Directed by Dahl, who seems more compatible with such snarky film-noir plots as "The Last Seduction" and "Red Rock West," the script lacks the ironies and emotional complications that made such POW classics as "King Rat" and "Empire of the Sun" so compulsively watchable. The prisoners and their rescuers are unfailingly heroic and the Japanese are smiling sadists; it sometimes feels as if the movie had been made during World War II.

Perhaps the most intriguing line of dialogue belongs to one of the Filipino guerrillas, who cunningly plots battlefield strategy based on his observation that the Japanese "don't respect us as soldiers." The enemy's hubris is its weakness, and he makes his plans accordingly. It's at moments like this that you wonder if a more aggressively native viewpoint might have given the movie true distinction.

Still, when newsreel footage of the Cabanatuan prisoners turns up in an extended epilogue, it's hard not to choke up at the sight of people who really did survive this horror. Dahl's approach may be somewhat pedestrian, but he tells his story clearly and with few unnecessary detours.

John Hartl:

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