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Film review: Only last third of ‘Raid’ is great

First 90 minutes of buildup to the rescue takes some slogging

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The first two-thirds of "The Great Raid" is buildup.

For 90 minutes, the filmmakers profile soldiers who participated in the title raid — the prisoners who were rescued and those civilians who aided underground resistance forces in the Philippines during World War II. (Maybe it should have been titled "Some of What Led Up to the Great Raid.")

It takes some real slogging just to get through all that, and it doesn't help that there are such pointless digressions as a contrived romance, which pad out the film rather than adding context.

And yet, when the movie finally does show what the troops went through and how the raid itself was pulled off, it's exciting, enthralling stuff. If only there was more of that. . . .

"The Great Raid" refers to the most successful rescue mission in U.S. armed forces history, in which Army Rangers raided a Philippine POW camp to free more than 500 survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March.

Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco) was the brains behind the operation, with the daunting task of devising a plan to sneak 150 rangers behind enemy lines, past thousands of Japanese troops, just to get to Cabanatuan, a heavily fortified camp.

In the meantime, the Americans being held there have been doing whatever they can just to stay alive. The camp is in the hands of the Japanese military's secret police, which has been "liquidating" POWs (burning many of them alive). And the leader of the POWs (Joseph Fiennes) is on his death bed, having contracted malaria.

Among the incidental characters is a heroic nurse (Connie Nielsen) whose character is in love with Fiennes' ailing POW. It's an unnecessary bit that only makes the film feel more formulaic.

Still, director John Dahl does get good performances from his cast. Franco, who also serves as narrator, actually deserves more screen time, as does Benjamin Bratt, who plays his commanding officer.

The action scenes are staged well, too, and are shot in a way that stresses the hectic nature of war but which doesn't render them incomprehensible (unlike the video game-style action in many of today's blockbusters).

"The Great Raid" is rated R for strong scenes of war violence (shootings, stabbings and explosive mayhem), scattered use of strong profanity, some gore, some drug content (prescription drug use), a few racial epithets, a torture scene and use of some crude slang terms. Running time: 133 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com