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In such blackhearted indie hits as The Last Seduction and Unforgettable, John Dahl updated the film noir for contemporary sensibilities. Faced with an uplifting true story from World War II, however, the director apparently decided to play it as if Hollywood war flicks were still under the sway of the Signal Corps. The Great Raid opens with snippets of newsreel and propaganda films, recounting the 1942 fall of the Philippines to Japan, the Bataan Death March, and the abandonment of some 70,000 American and Filipino troops to the brutal Japanese occupation. Then black-and-white shifts to antique-looking color, and it’s early 1945—time for a belated attempt to rescue the survivors as U.S. troops retake the Philippines. Adapted by scripters Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard, and Hossein Amini from two books, William B. Breuer’s The Great Raid on Cabanatuan and former Washington City Paper staff writer Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers, the movie stolidly switches between three locations: a U.S. bivouac, where Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) asks untested Capt. Prince (James Franco) to plan a raid to free the prisoners; the POW camp, where ailing Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas), and some 500 others face cruel new commandant Maj. Nagai (Motoki Kobayashi); and Manila, where improbably glamorous American-posing-as-Lithuanian nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) swipes medical supplies to be transported to resistance fighters and POWs. To add to the ’40s vibe, Utinsky and Gibson are unfulfilled lovers whose anguished separation will not be ended by the raid on Cabanatuan. The dialogue is stiff and old-fashioned, with pauses that even John Wayne would have recognized as stagy. As might be expected, however, the violence here is rawer than in vintage WWII flicks: POWs and resistance members are tortured and murdered, and the raiders encounter burning corpses in the aftermath of a civilian massacre. Dahl proves himself with the raid sequence itself, which is crisp and gripping. If much of The Great Raid is archaic, the movie at least demonstrates that the taut action sequence is timeless.

—Mark Jenkins