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Hart's War (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Winning 'War'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Hart's War on DVD.

The ads for Hart's War make it look as if Bruce Willis is the star of the movie, and since he's not, the ads come across making the movie look stupid, sappy and confusing. Happily, that's not the case.

One of my movie rules is that the hero and the villain should be able to sit down and have a drink together. One-dimensional villains, like Tim Roth's Thade in Planet of the Apes, simply scream and seeth and will even stoop to killing their own men if provoked. But the SS Major Wilhelm Visser (played by Marcel Iures) in Hart's War is American-educated, speaks English and does indeed invite our heroes Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell to his office for a drink.

Farrell is actually the star of the film. He plays Lieutenant Tommy Hart, a senator's son serving military duty at the tail end of WWII, but he hasn't seen any action yet. While driving a superior officer to his camp, he's attacked and taken prisoner. He gives up a little American military information and then gets tossed into a prison camp.

Military protocol still rules even in camp, and Hart's commanding officer, Colonel William McNamara (Willis) assigns him to a bed in the enlisted men's bunk, as the officer's bunk is full. He's already at odds with the men there when two Tuskegee Airmen (Vicellous Reon Shannon and Terrence Howard) are shot down and also join the camp. Hart tries to defend them and to get the men to salute the higher-ranking officers, but the men resist.

Then one dark night, one of the Airmen is killed in the yard, and his murderer, a white man, is also killed. The remaining black man, Lieutenant Lincoln Scott (Howard), is blamed for the crime and put on trial. Hart, with his two years of law school, becomes the most reasonable person to defend him.

Meanwhile, don't go thinking you're watching a prison camp movie without some grand escape plan afoot.

As written by Terry George and Billy Ray and directed by Gregory Hoblit (Frequency and Primal Fear), the film suffers a few stumbling blocks here and there -- overwritten scenes or, in the case of Scott, an underwritten character who basically has no flaws. (See To Kill a Mockingbird for a similar example.)

But thankfully, McNamara, Hart and Visser are marvelously flawed. We learn that Hart broke down under German questioning at the lowest, easiest level, while other, harder soldiers stood up for days -- weeks -- longer. McNamara has his dark side as well -- at various points in the film, we never know whether he's on our side or not.

The film does a nice job of switching genres -- from a war movie to a prison camp movie, to a courtroom drama, to an escape drama -- without ever losing us.

Hart's War is no Grand Illusion or The Thin Red Line but in the ever-increasing onslaught of war movies, it stands head and shoulders above most of the competition.

DVD Details: It's difficult to figure out why this solid, entertaining war movie tanked, but I suspect it has something to do with the horrible ad campaign, promising a Bruce Willis action movie. Willis occupies only a supporting role, as a tough American colonel stuck in a WWII prison camp. Colin Farrell is actually the movie's hero, a spoiled senator's son and a lawyer-in-training who also ends up in the camp. When two downed Tuskegee Airmen (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Reon Shannon) also join the camp, rampant racism results in a murder and a trail. And don't think that these guys aren't going to try an escape at some point.

Perhaps that's another of the movie's marketing problems: too many characters and situations. But the marketing people's loss is our gain, and the film now has a second chance on DVD. MGM/UA's package contains a commentary track by director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) and Willis, a second track by the producer, deleted scenes and more.

Starring: Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Terrence Dashon Howard, Cole Hauser, Linus Roache, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Rory Cochrane
Written by: Billy Ray, Terry George, based on the novel by John Katzenbach
Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
MPAA Rating: R for some strong war violence and language
Running Time: 125 minutes
Date: February 15, 2002