THE GREAT RAID (John Dahl). 132 minutes. Opens Friday (August 12). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNN
The second world war is the new Vietnam. During the peaceful late 80s, Vietnam movies were all the rage. Now that the U.S. is at war, Hollywood is looking further back for inspiration and happy endings. It's found both in The Great Raid , a St. Crispin's Day-level miracle rescue of 500 POWs from a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines in 1945. Benjamin Bratt plays Lt. Colonel Mucci, who leads a battalion of untested men into enemy territory. Joseph Fiennes is Major Gibson, the POWs' commanding officer, who's dying of malaria.
The movie can't avoid some clichés: the overwrought score, the cheesy male bonding, the girl ( Connie Nielsen ) pining for her fella, although in this case she's also a nurse and part of the resistance movement. The Japanese come off as one-dimensional and wholly evil.
But director John Dahl keeps the suspense high and the camera at a distance. For once in a battle flick, you can see the action. This leads to some lovely shots, like a mortar shell blasting a fountain of backlit water into the night sky.
No doubt critics and historians will parse The Great Raid's historical accuracy. But as the generation that fought the war dies out, there are worse things than to tell its stories again, however embellished that retelling may be.