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Quentin Tarantino did it. Terry Gilliam did it, too. Hell, M. Night Shyamalan did it twice. Each of these men is the rare director who has somehow managed to coax a performance out of Bruce Willis in which he didn’t come off like the smirking, squinting, jiving human form of Mr. Potato Head. (Note to Brian De Palma, Rob Reiner, Barry Levinson, Alan Rudolph, and Tony Scott: You all failed miserably.) From his early days as wisecracking PI David Addison on TV’s Moonlighting to his recent performances in such nuanced big-screen blockbusters as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Willis has frequently proved that there are considerable chops behind that constantly grinning mug. But unlike, say, fellow top-biller Tom Hanks, who now takes work solely with dominant, clued-in directors, Willis is too often teamed with flimsy helmsmen who just don’t have the stones to reign in the frequently lazy superstar. And when that happens, the results—The Story of Us, anybody? How about The Kid?—are never pretty.

Gregory Hoblit, whose movies (Primal Fear, Fallen, Frequency) always seem to be released in the cinematic dead time of either February or September, is the latest director to take a crack at de-smugging Willis. In Hart’s War, a rudderless World War II thriller that commences as a rah-rah POW flick but then, halfway through, clumsily turns into a cue-the-strings courtroom battle about racial injustice, Willis plays Col. William A. McNamara, a decorated hero who is now the ranking detainee in an Augsburg, Germany, stalag. We know that McNamara is a tough sumbitch because (1) he has a nasty scar on his face (a scar, it should be noted, that hopscotches to various locations of his left cheek throughout the movie) and (2) he displays absolutely no emotion whatsoever. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. Willis delivers his myriad honor-code cliches as if he were narrating a National Geographic documentary on the plight of the manatee. He’s still squinting a lot—you just know that a knock-knock joke is dying to pop out—but at least Hoblit got him to stop grinning so much. If only he could have gotten him to act.

Despite his swaggering presence in the trailers and his sagging, saluting visage on the movie poster, Willis is actually nothing but a supporting player in Hart’s War, which is based on a best-selling novel by dime-store hack John Katzenbach; this is really Colin Farrell’s show. Farrell, as none of you will remember, played Jesse James in last summer’s American Outlaws and was about as convincing a cowboy as Don Knotts in The Apple Dumpling Gang. Here, Farrell lamely portrays Lt. Thomas Hart, a naive rich kid who is forced into the role of makeshift defense attorney when one of his fellow POWs—a young black American pilot (Terrence Howard)—is believed to have killed a bigoted white barracks mate.

Pretty-boy Hart—bruised in one shot and then inexplicably soapy-fresh in the next—soon finds out that the impromptu court martial is just a clever ruse by McNamara, who hopes that the trial will keep the German guards busy while he schemes to escape the prison and attack the munitions plant just over yonder. The colonel cares not at all whether the pilot is innocent or guilty, dead or alive. The big confrontation scenes—will it be the mission or the man?—between our two heroes are supposed to be all puffed-chest powerhousery, but there’s one little problem: With his moppy bowl cut and beady brown eyes, Farrell is well on his way to being the spitting image of Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. He just doesn’t have Moe’s dramatic skill. And it certainly doesn’t help that Willis comes off in these supposedly big moments as if he’d rather be somewhere else, singing with his fake blues band.

Of course, all the blame for Hart’s War’s failures shouldn’t be pinned on the two lead actors. Budding hack Hoblit crafts his action scenes in a herky-jerky cutaway style that does nothing for plot development or tension-building; he’s obviously a man stuck with a movie budget that can’t compete with the cash handed to the Bruckheimers of the world. The screenplay, by Billy Ray and Terry George, features a series of final-act twists that are about as obvious as Willis’ squirrelly toupee. And although there is a surprising number of comic moments, they all come courtesy of Marcel Iures, who plays sneering, chain-smoking SS villain Col. Werner Visser. But I’m not sure if audiences knee-slappin’ for the Nazi is what Hoblit was hoping for.

Thanks to an out-of-nowhere multitextured performance from Howard as the accused pilot who proudly defends a country that’s still mired in segregation, Hart’s War isn’t absolute hell. Then again, thanks to spud Willis and dud Farrell, it’s pretty damn close. CP