It’s hard to know whether or not to recommend this film because for every thing it does right there’s at least one and occasionally two things it gets ever so wrong. Why? Imagine “Stalag 17” crossed with an episode of “Law and Order” and seasoned with dashes of “The Tuskegee Airmen” and you’ll get an idea of how confused and dramatically overwrought “Hart’s War” is.
The story: rear-echelon headquarters jockey Lieutenant Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell) is taking a jeep ride through the Ardennes forest on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge when he’s taken prisoner by some German soldiers who’ve infiltrated the American lines. After a suspiciously-brief interrogation session, he’s sent to a POW camp. The ranking American officer there is Colonel William McNamara, a fourth-generation West Point type who’s so flinty you could strike matches off his stare. McNamara believes Hart gave up vital information to the Germans and so banishes him to the enlisted men’s barracks. There, Hart gets tossed into the midst of a racial skirmish when he’s joined in the barracks by two black Air Force pilots (Terrence Dashon Howard and Vicellous Reon Shannon); a fact not appreciated by the rednecks in the barracks. Leading the race-baiting is Bedford (another neo-Nazi role for Cole Hauser), a fixer who’s able to get just about anything for anyone in the camp. The racial conflict builds fast and soon one of the pilots is summarily executed by the camp guards in what looks to be a frame-up. When the other pilots seemingly takes revenge, he’s tried for murder in a court-martial, which is tolerated by the camp’s bored commandant (Marcel Iures), who’s looking for a little diversion. McNamara orders Hart, who went to a couple years of law school before the war, to act as the pilot’s defense lawyer.
Follow all that? On paper, the film’s premise seems more than a little ridiculous and contrived. It’s a testament to its uniformly amazing performances and solid direction that “Hart’s War” goes down much easier than it should. With films like “Primal Fear” and “Fallen” already on his resume, director Gregory Hoblit is showing himself to be a reliable Hollywood craftsman. He keeps Willis more in the background than you’d expect, wisely letting Tigerland‘s Farrell carry the story’s weight and giving supporting players like Hauser and Howard plenty to do without hijacking Hart’s story. Action scenes-especially one early in the film where American fighter planes accidentally strafe a trainload of American prisoners-are simply superb.
Where “Hart’s War” gets in trouble is with its too-many-cooks plot. It’s hard enough to swallow the idea of a Nazi commander allowing an American court-martial to go on like this, but then to saddle that trial with the usual courtroom shocks and reversals we’ve all seen before just deflates the whole enterprise. It’s a daring and fascinating idea to drop two black fighter pilots, officers no less, into this camp, but that premise is almost fatally derailed by hammy, Norman Jewison-esque preaching. Compared with crappy, jingoistic spectacles like Pearl Harbor, “Hart’s War” is a properly sober war film that only starts to unravel towards the end. Good efforts from everyone concerned; they just should have considered adapting a different novel.