During the long stretches of Hart's War when my mind was wandering, I thought of all the World War II movies it owes a debt to: Stalag 17, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Grand Illusion. Alas, those debts haven't been paid. Although it confronts one of those dirty little secrets the Greatest Generation doesn't like to talk about ' that the democratic ideals we fought so hard to defend didn't always extend to the black soldiers who were fighting ' Hart's War is both too derivative and too slackly directed to have much impact. It's set in a German POW camp, and when the movie begins you can almost hear the stock characters as they lock into place: Bruce Willis as a no-nonsense commanding officer, Colin Farrell as a young lieutenant who hasn't been tested in battle, Marcel Iures as a cultured, yet sadistic, yet honorable (that's where Grand Illusion comes in) Kommandant. The plot is anything but stock, however. In fact, it's off the wall.
How else to describe a storyline in which Willis' Col. McNamara is not only allowed to conduct a court-martial trial when one of his soldiers is found dead, he even persuades the Kommandant to attend the trial. And when Farrell's Lt. Hart is assigned the job of defending a black airman accused of murdering a white racist, he calls as his first witness...the Kommandant! Who agrees to testify! I wouldn't have been surprised if the guy had gotten up there and said, "I know nuh-sink," so close does the movie come to "Hogan's Heroes" at times. Which is strange, since its tone is quite grim, although gorgeously grim. Cinematographer Alar Kivilo has draped the German winter in frosty shades of gray and silver and brown. And Hart, while being interrogated by the Nazis early on, huddles in the corner of his cell without benefit of clothes; our concern for his health and safety is somewhat mitigated by the fact that, even in these direst of circumstances, he's flashing a bit of thigh.
Ireland's Farrell, who was used to good effect in Tigerland, may lack the star power to carry Hart's War. Or is it ego he lacks? Whatever it is, he seems like a supporting actor in a movie named after his character. As for Willis, he relies on his accumulated star power. He's doing his minimalist routine, scrunching up his face as if he were in desperate need of a laxative. (He squints even indoors, at night.) And the performance works, in its limited way. But it's Terrence Howard, as a black officer forced to bunk with the enlisted men, who breaks through the movie's utter familiarity and takes us, however briefly, into uncharted territory. "Hart's War is an incredible example of honor, courage and sacrifices made by soldiers at war in defending the American way of life," the press material proclaims. But the American way of life, at that time, included separate facilities for blacks, whether soldiers or civilians. There's a great movie to be made on that subject. This isn't it.