I managed to wrangle tickets to see a sneak preview of The Great Raid (John Dahl, 2005) and have one thing to say: Stalag 17 was a phenomenal movie.

The plot, not that it matters, is the true story of a mission to liberate 500 American P.O.W.s from a prison camp in the Philippines, in January 1945. Along the way, an American nurse funnelling medicine to the camp gets caught by the Japanese, and apparently released, althought the movie glosses over this fact.

So many things bother me about the film, in little ways: the use of Japanese villains in a wildly cartoonish way (replete with video game cannon fodder deaths), 48 years after The Bridge Over the River Kwai covered much the same ground with infinitely more recognition of the existence of something like Japanese culture; the film's maddening leaps from story to story, never allowing us to become particularly invested in either the prisoners' fate or the rescuers' mission; the flat characterizations, which consisted mostly of The Leader, His Buddy, and Everyone Else, for both the soldiers outside, and the prisoners.

The film does some things right: the cinematography by Peter Menzies, Jr. is really quite beautiful; the actual raid on the camp is satisfyingly explosive and loud; the huge cast of B-List bright young things (Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Robert Mammone, Joseph Fiennes, Marton Csokas, Logan Marshall-Green, to name a handful) does a hell of a job with non-existant roles. About this latter point, I want to mention that as I was watching the credits, to try and put names to the more-recognizable faces, I realized that I only knew something like four character names.

The great flaw, though, is the utter banality of the thing. For what was clearly meant to be a gung-ho patriotic epic, The Great Raid is a manifestly inert story. Partially it's because of the mindless hopping between storylines, which kills the forward momentum of any of them; but it seems that the filmmakers simply don't know what makes this story intersting. Everything in the first 90 minutes is glossed over in the most perfunctory way imaginable, and when the raid comes, it's too little, too late.

And then there's the story of Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), a Manila nurse in love with one of the P.O.W.s. The goings-on in Manila are probably the highlight of the film, and Margaret is alone in the entire film by having an actual backstory; but not one damn frame of this story matters to the film as a whole (at the one-hour point, the movie completely, and very obviously, forgets that she exists). The 25 minutes spent developing this story could have gone into demonstrating the stakes of the rescue mission, or the feelings of the soldiers performing the raid; it could have been used to deepen the sense of despair that the prisoners live with every day. But instead, we are left with a fairly interesting tale of Manila life under occupation, surrounded a leaden chunk of military bravura and gunslinging.