At the end of World War II, the United States military began to make their way across the Pacific, retaking territories that the Japanese had invaded and conquered years prior. Realizing the war was coming to an end, the Japanese government had ordered all captured American military POWs be executed. It was estimated by U.S. forces that over 500 American captives still remained, primarily near the city of Cabanatuan. Our military was not going to sit by and let those that had fought so long and hard to win the war be sacrificed, so a small cabal of soldiers were sent in on a covert operation to rescue the remaining prisoners of war.
'The Great Raid' tells their story, and perhaps it is sadly ironic that the film meant to memorialize their victory is almost as little-known as the original rescue mission. 'The Great Raid' was produced by Miramax back in 2002, but sat on the shelf until the fall of 2005, when the deteriorating studio all but dumped the film into a handful of theaters before shipping it off to video. I admit to never having heard of the 'The Great Raid,' either, until Buena Vista announced it would be a part of its inaugural batch of Blu-ray titles. And that's a shame, because despite some structural problems, it is a well-crafted and heartfelt war film that is one of the better examples of the genre made in recent years.
Visually, director John Dahl steals a page from the 'Saving Private Ryan' playbook (a film that has virtually rewritten the war genre since its release), but that's okay. The battle scenes are not really at the heart of the film, anyway. In fact, those looking for a gangbusters action movie with lots of carnage should look elsewhere. Certainly, The Great Raid' has moments of intensity, but they are largely saved for the film's climax (don't worry, that's not a spoiler -- we already know how the real-life story ends). Dahl spends much more time on the heroism of the soldiers who would rescue the POWs, and not the captives. If that sometimes blunts the inherent suspense and drama of the story, it is also less exploitative. Here is the rare modern war film more interested in why its heroes did what they did (and how they did it) than in the gruesome ways in which they died.
The Great Raid' is hardly a masterpiece, though, and it suffers under the weight of too many subplots. I could have done without the middle sections of the film devoted to a Philippine resistance smuggling in medicine to sick prisoners, not because it wasn't interesting, but because it slowed the film down to a snail's pace. And the romantic hokum between and prisoner and nurse is totally formulaic and adds nothing to the film's already emotional climax. Some of the film's supporting soldier characters are also not very well fleshed out, and become little more than standard-issue caricatures needed to fill out the film's climactic rescue scene.
Still, despite these flaws, 'The Great Raid' is compelling. Dahl eschews most of the shaky camerawork and overly operatic camera moves to depict battle in a raw and realistic manner, and he attracted a fine cast. Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Robert Mammone all create believable, multi-faceted characters we genuinely care about, putting a face on one of the most underappreciated success stories in American military history. 'The Great Raid' is the rare war film that pulls no punches but is also surprisingly uplifting. Perhaps it is no 'Saving Private Ryan,' but 'The Great Raid' is by far one of the best films of its type made in recent years.
Buena Vista presents 'The Great Raid' in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p video. Encoded in MPEG-4/AVC, the compression codec has come under a good bit of fire lately among the tech elite as being inferior to MPEG-2 and VC-1. However, if this transfer is any indication, it is certainly capable of delivering top-quality high-def video, and 'The Great Raid' could easily go nose-to-nose with the better Blu-ray discs I've seen.
'The Great Raid' is a particularly challenging film, as a good portion of it takes place at night -- particularly the final raid, which is bathed in darkness and illuminated only a few distinct points of source light. Yet this transfer is always quite detailed, with shadow delineation excellent. Even fast action in such low-light conditions doesn't suffer from any noticeable pixel breakup or macroblocking. Blacks are also dead on, and contrast thankfully is not overpumped all to hell like so many war films these days.
Other aspects of the presentation are also very good. Colors in daylight scenes are a bit subdued, though the film does not look nearly as heavily processed as, say, 'Saving Private Ryan' or the recent Blu-ray release 'Tears of the Sun.' The film has a natural, film-like look, with a slight bit of grain perfectly in keeping with the film's visual style. The source material is also sharp and clean, with no major defects to report.
'The Great Raid' gets an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track encoded at 48kHz/16-bit, and it's a solid presentation. Not overwhelming, yet not too subdued, it delivers where it counts.
With any war flick I usually expect tons of surround action, and though 'The Great Raid' is not 'Saving Private Ryan' (still the reference in war film soundtracks), I was satisfied. Rears are usually engaged to strong effect during the action sequences. Pans between channels for gunfire and mechanical sounds are quite frequent and the seamlessness of the imaging is impressive. Discrete effects are clearly rendered and realistic. Low bass is also forceful throughout, with the slow, steady rumbling of a bomber plane a particular highlight. The film's climactic battle is also quite a powder keg, and delivers a fairly sustained barrage of sound throughout.
Quieter moments are also well done, if lacking in envelopment. Dialogue is rooted firmly in the front soundstage, and generally well-balanced in the mix -- there were only a couple of instances where I wanted to reach for the volume control on my remote. However, atmospheric effects are slight, and a more consistent surround presence would have been welcome. Otherwise, this is technically a very solid track that suits the film just fine.
Extras on 'The Great Raid' are slim. The sole extra is a screen-specific audio commentary with director John Dahl, producer Marty Katz, editor Scott Chestnut, author Hampton Sides and technical advisor Captain Dale Dye (this guy seems to be everywhere these days). With such a large and diverse number of participants it's quite a freewheeling track. A nice range of topics are covered, from the historical background of the story, to changes required to make Sides' original novel filmable, and the usual on-set production stories and effects challenges. Dye also weighs in that the film is, for the most part, surprisingly accurate with real-life combat scenarios. All around a good track, though unless you are really into the film or the subject matter you can probably skip it and still sleep through the night.
'The Great Raid' barely made a blip at the box office, and even war movie fans may have a hard time recalling it. Maybe that's why Disney decided to include it in their first wave of Blu-ray releases -- they know we're starving for content, so may be more likely to check this one out. As is, it's a solid disc, with a nice transfer and soundtrack plus an audio commentary. No great shakes, really, but worth a rent of you're a fan of this type of film.