Set at the end of World War II in Germany, "Hart's War" misleadingly sets the proceedings up to be a typical, battle-ridden war film when, in fact, it really wants to be a hokey courtroom drama. The mesmerizingly directed, shockingly violent opening fifteen minutes are easily its best, helped immeasurably by the gorgeous cinematography by Alar Kivilo (2001's "The Glass House
"). Kivilo proves to be a master of beautiful, snow-drenched landscapes, and one shot of a character being thrown from an automobile, only to find himself lying in a sea of frozen bodies, is cogent and unforgettable. Since the meticulous visuals are about the only compliment worth paying to "Hart's War," it's best to get it out of the way from the start. Once the setting switches to a POW camp outside of Belgium, the movie grinds to a startling halt from which it never picks up or evokes any more signs of interest.
Set at the end of 1944, privileged Lieutenant Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), the son of a senator, is traveling through the wintry forest on a routine chauffeur mission when they are ambushed by the Germans. Tommy is subsequently tortured and then sent to Stalag VIA, where he joins his fellow American prisoners of war, led by Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis).
When two black officers, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Dashon Howard) and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Reon Shannon), arrive and are assigned the same barrack, the overt racism of the enlisted men begins to boil almost immediately. Following the senseless murder of Lamar, and the later death of a white soldier that leaves Lincoln holding the weapon, he is immediately sent to be put on trial. Because of his race, Lincoln is nearly guaranteed death, but Tommy is positive that he was set up. Yearning to finally do something truly honorable, aspiring lawyer Tommy agrees to defend him in court.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit (2000's "Frequency"), the possibility of turning the premise of "Hart's War" into one of worthy intrigue was not out of reach. All of the elements are on hand for an involving war-set thriller, but Hoblit and on-auto-pilot screenwriters Billy Ray (1997's "Volcano") and Terry George (1997's "The Boxer") render every minute with an embarrassing lifelessness and a lack of human emotions. Every character, including Farrell's Tommy Hart and Willis' William McNamara, are such impassive, empty-headed creations that when the climax calls for the viewer to be deeply touched when one of them grows a last-minute heart, it feels about as authentic as this year's Russian Olympic Gold Medalists for the pairs figure skating event.
"Hart's War" also achieves the very unfortunate, very rare feat of being a war movie that comes close to being unbearable to sit through--not because it is gory or too intense, but because it moves at, roughly, the pace of a box of rocks. It has been a long time since a film has been so boring and forgettable because of its complete absence of entertainment value. Watching flatly written and performed characters going through the tired paces of a cliched storyline is not exactly an appealing way to spend over two hours, especially when the running time is so needlessly egregious. At the same time, not much of anything happens through the course of the picture until the last act, and what arrives rings sharply false.
The listless performances from an array of notable talents is dispiriting, but fits well with the movie's other shortcomings. As in 2001's "American Outlaws
," Colin Farrell hints at the undeniable star power he might be able to possess in the future, but is stuck in an awful movie. Bruce Willis (2001's "Bandits
"), as the difficult-to-pen-down William McNamara, phones in his top-billed role. Willis, along with inferior screenwriters Ray and George, have such a loose grip on McNamara that he is more an apparition than a character. Terrence Dashon Howard (2000's "Big Momma's House
"), playing charged Lt. Lincoln Scott, flirts with putting in the film's sole significant acting turn, but his part is a stock one that has somewhat fallen victim to the cutting room floor.
With the current release of so many war pictures to theaters and a renewed interest in patriotic themes, "Hart's War" stands as an unanimous failure on all counts. With wooden dialogue, a dull undercurrent that sterilizes the supposedly dramatic moments, and a finale that leaves you thoroughly unmoved, director Hoblit is left running on empty for this latest filmmaking attempt. "Hart's War" is worse than just uneven; it leaves you not caring in the least about what is, essentially, an important part of history.
©2002 by Dustin Putman