When it comes to race relations in the U.S. few will deny that things have dramatically changed over the past half-century. Yet, most everyone will agree that there's still plenty of room for improvement. One of the ways that artists try to help out in such matters is by slipping such issues into a grander form of entertainment - be it dramatic or comedic - and thus educate viewers, with whatever message they may have, while diverting their attention - to one degree or another -- elsewhere.
Such is the case in director Gregory Hoblit's latest film, "Hart's War." What initially appears will be a standard WWII POW prison escape flick turns out to be a message movie as well, this time in the form of "Why can't we all just get along?"
That may come as a bit of a surprise to some viewers who've been mislead by the advertising campaign and movie poster, just like the fact that Willis - whose mug is the one that commands the movie poster - isn't the titular character and that it's not the tale of his war the movie's interested in telling.
Something of a combination of any WWII POW film (such as "The Great Escape" or "Stalag 17") and military trial pictures (such as "A Few Good Men" and "A Soldier's Tale"), the film has its moments and benefits from some good performances by some of it various performers. Yet, what amounts to didactic preachiness and an uneven mixture of its storylines prevents the film from being as good, moving or exciting as it might have been.
As written by screenwriters Billy Ray ("Volcano," "Color of Night") and Terry George ("The Boxer," "In the Name of the Father") -- who have adapted writer John Katzenbach's novel - the film includes the standard POW material regarding the Americans in the German stalag. There are the secret compartments and passageways, the somewhat respectful but still volatile repartee between the American officer and the German commandant, and the outsmarting of the guards.
From the military courtroom dramas of the past we have the green rookie who's in over his head trying to defend a suspect who has the odds stacked against him, as well as his interaction with a seasoned and gruff veteran who doesn't seem to like him.
For anyone who hasn't seen any such films, this one might come off as an exciting and engrossing experience. For those who have, however, the picture will likely feel like a mediocre retreading of various familiar elements from those previous movies, but without the crackling and smart dialogue or contagious energy.
Cases in point are two scenes that indicate the level of what's to follow. In one, the German Stalag commandant - who, natch, went to an American school before the war -- gleefully anticipates the pending military trial, stating that it will be something like he's seen in American movies. In the other, we see brief views of the POWs staging a theatrical show that includes caricatures of Hitler and the war.
Unfortunately, both scenes uphold their precursory nature and status as the film simply feels like so many other similar pictures that have preceded it, and does so not necessarily in a mocking fashion, but one that never manages to rise above its artifice.
It's not that Hoblit ("Frequency," "Primal Fear") does a hack job with the material, and for a while it's actually rather good as we follow the story of the titular character. Yet, once the standard POW material comes into play and then the race card is thrown into the mix, things get a bit too obvious and redundant. That wouldn't be so bad if they didn't get preachy as well, but that's exactly what occurs.
The problem is that we know there was racism and inequality in the '40s and that not all Germans were bad. The filmmakers, however, seem to think that either that's not the case or that we need to hear it one more time to make sure the message is received. It is, but to the point of being somewhat insulting and feeling like it's decades behind the times in delivering its message.
It doesn't help that things get more improbable and melodramatic as things eventually come to a head and expository revelations are made and/or uncovered. To some, the culmination of such material will be exciting, but to others it may become too preposterous and/or ludicrous to bear. The film certainly contains an ending that most won't see coming, but it also feels more contrived and unlikely (in terms of the number of involved people) than shocking.
All of that said, the performances are generally decent to good. Colin Farrell ("American Outlaws," "Tigerland") proves once again that he's a star just waiting for the right material to allow him to bud, flower and then take over Hollywood. Bruce Willis ("Bandits," "The Sixth Sense") plays something of the anti-hero here, and is a bit hard to buy at first. While I liked his character's nebulous qualities and the notion of his motives, the material somewhat hampers Willis' performance.
The most intriguing performance comes from Marcel Iures ("The Peacemaker," "Mission: Impossible") as the German colonel. Despite being saddled with some far too obvious contrivances - he listens to Negro jazz in his office - the actor brings some depth to his character and thankfully avoids most of the stereotypes - both dramatic and comical - usually associated with such characters.
Meanwhile, Cole Hauser ("Tigerland," "Pitch Black") plays a convincing bigot, and Terrence Howard ("Glitter," "The Best Man") and Vicellous Shannon ("The Hurricane," "Can't Hardly Wait") deliver solid performances as the two black flyboys who find themselves in a hornet's nest of unrest.
Decent at times but restrained and hampered by a script that's often both too familiar and too preachy, the film clearly isn't horrible. Yet, it's not great either, resulting in a mediocre effort that doesn't really have anything new to say or explore, but is relatively easy enough to watch and should benefit from the current patriotic atmosphere in the country. "Hart's War" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.