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The Great Raid: Director's Cut

In retrospect, perhaps it wasn't a match made in heaven. Then again, when Harvey and Bob Weinstein sold their Miramax film company to Disney in 1993, it appeared to be a marriage of convenience at best — Disney could offer the Weinsteins a wealth of resources, while Miramax would serve as Disney's art-house/indie label, unearthing new talent, and perhaps offsetting some of the Disney empire's renowned stodginess. In fact, Miramax did even more than that. During a 12-year run, the Weinsteins revealed gifts beyond the hardball world of film acquisition and distribution — they also tackled the annual awards season like high-powered D.C. lobbyists, racking up 220 Oscar nominations and three Best Picture wins. But their eventual separation from Disney seemed inevitable for some time. The controversial Dogma and Fahrenheit 9/11 were cast aside like red-headed stepchildren, and the brothers reportedly did not have a warm relationship the Disney leadership. And with the formation of The Weinstein Company in 2005, the Miramax vaults were cleared, rushing titles such as The Brothers Grimm and The Underclassman into theaters at the end of the summer season, only to meet disappointing returns. It sounds a bit odd then to suggest that John Dahl's The Great Raid was released too soon — completed in 2002, it had seen two prior release dates come and go over the following 24 months. Only the Weinsteins' exit offered it a chance to find an audience, but a lack of promotion and screens meant it could never make back its $70 million budget. After taking in $10 million over a few weeks, it was quietly shuttled away, never getting anywhere near the end-of-year awards contenders, where it clearly belonged.

The single largest surrender of United States troops occurred on April 9, 1942, when the last Americans on the Bataan peninsula of the Philippines — facing better-equipped, better-trained Japanese forces — had little choice but to lay down their World War I-era weapons. It was not long after Gen. Douglas MacArthur had been forced to abandon the Philippines by President Roosevelt, when he famously said "I shall return." MacArthur did return, but not until late in 1944, when momentum in the Pacific Theater had turned toward the Allies favor. The American assault on the occupied Philippines — assisted by local guerrillas and underground networks — eventually led to an unusual dilemma: More than 500 American survivors of the 1942 surrender, and the subsequent Bataan Death March, were known to be in the Cabanatuan POW camp on Luzon, and as Allied forces approached, it became more likely that their Japanese captors would slaughter them. The task of rescuing the POWs falls to Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), whose 6th Ranger Battalion is among the best-trained forces in the Pacific, even though they've seen little action. Mucci turns to Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco) to formulate the plan of attack. But the Japanese are perfectly aware that they are about to lose the Philippines, causing them to replace the guards at Cabanatuan with an elite unit. Such places additional pressure on the highest-ranking POW, Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), who's suffering from malaria and trying to prevent his colleague Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas) from hatching an ill-advised escape. Meanwhile, the Japanese secret police soon uncover an underground network led by a nurse in Manila, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), and in their final days they hope to extract information from Gibson based on his brief love affair with her.

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At first glance, John Dahl doesn't seem like the sort of director who would helm a $70 million war film, shot in Australia, and carefully constructed to replicate locations from a desolate POW camp to U.S. Army field headquarters to busy downtown Manila in 1945. But Dahl's also far more an auteur than a simple journeyman, first gaining attention with the brilliant neo-noir Red Rock West (1992) and virtually launching high-stakes poker into the cultural mainstream with Rounders (1998). The Great Raid is far more ambitious than any other work in his filmography, but he's nonetheless detail-oriented and attentive to history. A brief prologue covers the Pacific war from Pearl Harbor to early 1945 (veteran editor Scott Chestnut's temporary narration was retained for the final film), and while a good deal of the story serves dramatic purposes, many of the characters are drawn from history, including Lt. Col. Mucci, Capt. Prince, and Margaret Utinsky. Content to not be Michael Bay (and 2005 was not the year to be Michael Bay anyway), Dahl avoids the excesses of Pearl Harbor, in particular by using a minimum of CGI and getting the vast majority of the action "in camera," making The Great Raid come across far more like a classic WWII movie than a contemporary Hollywood remake. Gibson's deeply held love for Margaret and his ongoing conflicts with fellow prisoner Redding form one half of the story, made surprisingly trenchant by Joseph Fiennes, who's so emaciated he looks like death on its feet. The ongoing tension between Mucci and Prince is an equally compelling, quiet drama played out as two men — one headstrong, the other meditative and cautious — find themselves on the same mission, but with differing methodologies. As Mucci, Benjamin Bratt in particular offers one of The Great Raid's most indelible performances in the mold of old-school Hollywood tough guys like William Holden and Cliff Robertson. As with the best actors on film, he says the most here while often saying little at all.

Buena Vista/Miramax's two-disc DVD release of The Great Raid features a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with an appropriately dynamic Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix that adds volume in the right places but is never overwhelming. Supplements on Disc One include an edited commentary featuring director John Dahl, producer Mary Katz, technical advisor Capt. Dale Dye, editor Scott Chestnut, and author Hampton Sides. Also on board is the featurette "The Price of Freedom: Making The Great Raid" (20 min.) and 16 deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Dahl and a "play all" option). Disc Two includes several additional features, in particular the documentary "Ghosts of Bataan," which surveys the Second World War in the Philippines (60 min.) Eight extras round out the disc — "The Veterans Remember," (7 min.), "A History Lesson with Author Hampton Sides," (14 min.), "Capt. Dale Dye's Boot Camp," (8 min.), "Boot Camp Outtakes," (3 min.), "Mixing The Great Raid," (10 min.), an interactive "Mix Board," a "War in the Pacific" interactive timeline, and "Dedication to the Soldiers of Bataan" (4 min.). Dual-DVD keep-case.

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