It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Here is a war movie that understands how wars are actually fought. After "Stealth" and its high-tech look-alikes, which make warfare look like a video game, "The Great Raid" shows the hard work and courage of troops whose reality is danger and death. The difference between "Stealth" and "The Great Raid" is the difference between the fantasies of the Pentagon architects of "shock and awe" and the reality of the Marines who were killed in Iraq last week.
The movie is based on the true story of a famous raid by U.S. Army Rangers and Philippine guerillas, who attacked the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan and rescued more than 500 Americans, with the loss of only two American and 21 Filipino lives. Nearly 800 Japanese died in the surprise attack. These numbers are so dramatic that the movie uses end credits to inform us they are factual.
"The Great Raid" has the look and feel of a good war movie you might see on cable late one night, perhaps starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan or Lee Marvin. It has been made with the confidence that the story itself is the point, not the flashy graphics. The raid is outlined for the troops (and for the audience), so that, knowing what the rescuers want to do, we understand how they're trying to do it. Like soldiers on a march, it puts one step in front of another, instead of flying apart into a blizzard of quick cuts and special effects. Like the jazzier but equally realistic "Black Hawk Down," it shows a situation that has moved beyond policy and strategy and amounts to soldiers in the field, hoping to hell they get home alive.
"You are the best-trained troops in the U. S. Army," their commander (Benjamin Bratt) tells the 6th Army Ranger Battalion. Perhaps that is close to the truth, but they have never been tested under fire; their first assignment involves penetrating Japanese-controlled territory, creeping in daylight across an open field toward the POW camp, hiding in a ditch until night, and then depending on surprise to rescue the prisoners, most of them starving, many of them sick, all of them survivors of the Bataan Death March.