'Hart's War' was a late entry in the post-'Saving Private Ryan' glut of gritty, postmodern war films, and it performed quite poorly at the box office for MGM, ranking alongside the same studio's 'Windtalkers' as one of the biggest financial disappointments of that season. Ultimately that may have been just desserts for MGM, but not because 'Hart's War' is necessarily a bad movie. Instead, the film's marketing proved so misleading that I can understand how movie-goers couldn't help but be disappointed. While the adverts pitched 'Hart's War' as some sort of action-fueled update of 'The Dirty Dozen,' it's actually more akin to military-themed, socially-conscious courtroom dramas such as 'A Few Good Men.' Perhaps if MGM had had a bit more faith in the film and had marketed it properly, it might have done a bit better for the studio.
Colin Farrell stars as Lt. Thomas Hart, the son of a United States Senator who is serving as a soldier in World War II. Working intelligence, Hart gets caught in a trap engineered by the Germans during a failed attempt to rescue a fellow solider. Tortured for information, our hero doesn't break, and is sent to a POW camp. Fathered by the gruff Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis), the POW group is intensely monitored by German Wilhelm Visser (Marcel Iures). But if the first hour of 'Hart's War' seems like 'Hogan's Heroes'-lite, the film really picks up steam when two African-American soldiers, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Reon Shannon) arrive at the camp. Racism running rampant, Archer is framed by the hateful Sgt. Bedford (Cole Hauser), who ends up being murdered by his target. But when Scott is accused of the crime, McNamara will call upon Hart to try the case and free Scott on all charges.
I still don't quite know where to place 'Hart's War.' The film has some very effective strong scenes, but seems stuck between two stools. Does this want to be an uplifting tale about WWII POWs, or a stirring courtroom melodrama about racism in the ranks? Either approach would have been fine, but the film is so grim and intensely serious one minute, and then suspenseful and thriller-like the next, that I suffered a form of a dramatic whiplash with each scene change.
Throughout 'Hart's War,' however, I remained engaged. The sum of its parts may not add up to quite enough, but the parts do work well indeed. I think director Gregory Hoblit's past films (including 'Primal Fear' and 'Frequency) have been a bit more successful at what they were trying to accomplish, but he consistently brings a passion and energy to every shot. I have no idea if Hoblit knew that the script by Terry George and Billy Ray was a bit hackneyed (and far more derivative than the original novel by John Katzenbach) -- but if did, he certainly never lets on. I also liked the film's major performances. Despite his top billing, Willis really isn't the film's star; Farrell is quite good in what is actually the leading role. Long before he became tabloid fodder, Farrell was a strong and charismatic presence, so much so that I was reminded why his star rose so far so fast. Howard also excels in the underwritten role of Scott, and it is easy to see glimmers of the talent that would later be on display in his Oscar-nominated 'Hustle & Flow.' The film also boasts excellent technical credits, including impeccable production design by Lilly Kilvert, sharp cinematography by Alar Kivilo, and a sadly underused score by Rachel Portman.
At first glance, 'Hart's War' may not look like anything to shout about on Blu-ray. The film's color-tinting is very blue, giving it a cold and chilly feel that just isn't very welcoming. That said, icy veneer aside, this 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p/MPEG-2 is a fine effort, with an impressive level of detail.
The source material has held up well over the past few years. There are no irritants such as dirt or dropouts, and no major compression artifacts, nor macroblocking. As mentioned above, colors are artificial, but fleshtones hold surprisingly firm all things considered. Blood red also gets a push, and the orange glow in interiors offers a nice accent to all the blue. Contrast is blown-out quite a bit, which gives the transfer an even harder edge. There are also a bit of edge halos present, which though toned down considerably versus the standard-def DVD still annoy. And while grain seems to have been digitally minimized, this contributesd a bit of softness to some of the wider shots, with far-off details blurring out.
Fox serves up another DTS HD Master Lossless Audio 5.1 surround track for 'Hart's War,' although the track's 1.5mbps core is all that's currently extractable, at least with the current Blu-ray hardware on the market as I write this review. This is a nice, solid presentation, with the film's sound design a bit more consistent and less bombastic than most modern war movies.
The track's most valuable asset is its very fine and sustained level of atmosphere. The chilly, ominous ambiance is palpable, from natural effects like howling wind and rain to the unsettling stomp-stomp-stomp of Nazi boots. Heavier scenes, namely the P-51 attack on a train yard early on, boast even more pronounced surround action, though such bursts of excitement are sporadic. For a film that is really more dialogue-driven courtroom drama than anything else, the endless words are always clear and distinct, with excellent volumes. Dynamic range is robust, from deep bass that doesn't steamroll over the action but holds its own, and clean upper range free from abrasiveness. The only real disappointment is the handling of Rachel Portman's score. It is so elegant and evocative, yet placed so far in the background as to be almost transparent. It deserved better placement in the mix.
Though the standard-def DVD release featured an audio commentary and some deleted scenes, as has become custom for its MGM catalogue releases, Fox has dropped off that for the Blu-ray version. Instead, all we get is the film's Theatrical Trailer in full 1080p HD, as well as promos for a few other Fox Blu-ray titles.
'Hart's War' is an enjoyable enough war film with a fine early performance from Colin Farrell. While the film istelf ultimately never quite gels, this Blu-ray is certainly commendable, with a sharp transfer and soundtrack. Still, there are zippo extras and as fine as the disc's quality is, it is hard to justify Fox's $39.95 list price for a bare bones catalog release. Only those desperate for Bruce Willis or Colin Farrell in high-def need sign up for this tour of duty.