Hart's War (15)

Review by Jack Foley

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary with Bruce Willis, director Gregory Hoblit and writer Billy Ray; Audio commentary with producer David Foster; Deleted scenes; Photo galleries; Original theatrical trailer.

With so many of Hollywood's major players (both directors and stars) enlisting for war movies of late, it seems only natural to find Bruce Willis pitting his wits against the enemy in a World War Two drama.

What is surprising, however, is that the former Die Hard star has shyed away from the gung-ho, vest-clad heroics associated with the majority of his action roles, and opted for a more thoughtful approach to creating Big Screen carnage.

Based on John Katzenbach's novel of the same name, Hart's War finds Willis confined to a Prisoner of War camp in the final years of WWII biding his time before mounting a daring escape.

But this is no Great Escape; rather it is a courtroom drama (Katzenbach also penned Just Cause) set against the backdrop of war, which seeks to highlight the honour, courage and sacrifices made by soldiers in conflict while at the same time tackling the racial prejudices which so often cloud judgements.

And it is noble stuff indeed, competently directed by Gregory (Primal Fear) Hoblit and featuring a top quality cast, including the rapidly emerging Colin Farrell and Cole Hauser.

It is Tigerland's Farrell who portrays the Hart of the title, playing an opportunistic lieutenant who is enlisted by Willis's scheming Col William McNamara to defend a young black pilot accused of murdering a racist fellow prisoner.

The ensuing court case, presided over by Willis and Marcel Lures's German Col Werner Visser, is intended merely as a distraction for the escape, but rapidly becomes much more, forcing soldiers to confront their prejudices, weigh up the value of human life and do the honourable thing.

And, for the most part, it is entertaining in an old-fashioned sort of way, with Willis cutting a suitably impressive figure as the 'conflicted hero'.

Hoblit even book-ends proceedings with a couple of explosions and adds a couple of twists, while also refraining from portraying the Americans as overly patriotic and refusing to make the Germans too one dimensional (his use of Lures is particularly effective).

But there is also the feeling that this is a little too earnest and that something is missing. It's as though Hoblit wants to be hard-hitting, even controversial, but never quite has the conviction to pull it off, for fear of missing out at the Box Office (a move which backfired in the US).

Hence, viewers are offered innumerable shots of Farrell's frostbitten feet in the early stages - as he is stripped of boots and tortured by the Germans - but are expected to believe that his hair could remain immaculate throughout.

And while issues of racism and policy are confronted, the debate is somewhat muted by the director's cynical use of showboat speeches as well as answers which play strictly to formula even if the finale goes a little against type.

What we are left with is a war/message movie which wants to be taken seriously while refusing to let go of its blockbuster aspirations. The result makes for blurred viewing which certainly entertains, but which also leaves you with the feeling that Hollywood has shot itself in the foot.