For two thirds of its running time, 'The Great Raid' isn't really about the raid itself, but the build up to that incursion, the stories behind the characters involved, subplots about the people those characters know, and so on. Normally, this wouldn't be such a bad thing and would constitute good character development, not to mention meticulousness in scriptwriting and depth, but the way it is done here only serves to highlight the weakness in the shifting narratives and the questionable way certain plots strands are introduced and followed at the expense of the main account.
Employing an antiquated movie making process with more emphasis on a continuously unfolding human drama set inside a Japanese POW camp based in the Philippines during last year of the second world war, this self-important chronicle deals with how an inexperienced squad of soldiers led by Captain Prince (James Franco) and his commanding officer (Benjamin Bratt) muster up all their courage and combat training lessons in the hope of retrieving about 500 American soldiers held captive by the Japanese for over three years. While admirable for the most part and terrifically book-ended by two very well made and executed black & white documentary like sequences, the movie distractingly sways into tangents to also include the story of Margaret (Connie Nielsen), a nurse secretly in love with the highest ranking officer at the POW camp (Joseph Fiennes) who uses bribery and her network of contacts to send anti malarial quinine to the severely ill soldiers under captivity. At first this gives the story more weight and lends it the profundity of a well-structured novel. Quickly though, this well meaning method starts bearing too heavily on the real reason, beginning the movies descent into muddling motives and disinteresting purposes.
Nearing the end of this flimsily arranged storyline, the focus jumps back to the real reason, the raid of the title, and this is where the skills of director John Dahl really shine. The entire sequence, painstakingly planned onscreen and adroitly executed by Dahl, becomes a perilous mission where the mile long path leading to the camp is bare ground, stripped of much needed foliage that can provide cover and the number of enemies that are to be confronted remains unknown. This heightens the risks involved significantly and leads to superbly staged battle against tanks and enemy mortar during nightfall.
John Dahl, whose previous body of work includes the terrific poker drama 'Rounders' and one of best neo noirs of the past decade, 'The last seduction', actually ends up making an inferior generic war movie that not only doesn't have the electricity and individuality of his previous work, but also feels borrowed in many places. But if war movies are to be judged solely on the basis of their battles, then the great raid deserves some credit for its labours. - Faizan Rashid