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Damn the torpedoes 

by Ed Symkus

Well, the supposed blockbuster of the summer -- make that the year -- sure is big; no doubt there. But will it indeed be a blockbuster? The jury is out, and will be for a few weeks, even after the huge opening it's bound to get.

The blockbuster title only goes to films that get repeat business. And truth is, aside from the extraordinary battle sequences that come popping off the screen for a bit more than a half hour about 90 minutes in, there's not a lot here that's going to convince audiences that it's worth another nine bucks... plus popcorn... plus parking.

There are problems galore with the film, as there are movie pleasures aplenty. Starting out in 1923 with a wonderfully told intro to the two young farm boys who will later become the two central hot shot World War II pilots, director Michael Bay gives everything a soft, shimmering touch, mixing in some action and drama before it all switches up to a harsh 1941.

The war in Europe is raging, but America hasn't yet joined in, even though everyone knows it's inevitable. Our heroes, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), have already made themselves known as daredevil pilots, and Rafe is chosen to head off to England in order to help out the floundering British forces. But before he goes, the film jumps back just a little bit in time to introduce what the story is really about.

Sorry folks, the subject isn't simply the brutal attack on Pearl Harbor. Oh, we learn how American military intelligence knew that something was up with Japan, that the unsteady peace that had been kept couldn't hold on much longer. And we're shown -- almost in passing -- that the Japanese are planning to do this dastardly deed because of an oil embargo or some such thing.

No, the subject here is romance, the kind that goes wrong, and the December 7 attack on Hawaii is treated almost as something that gets in the way of that story. It's one of those cliched triangles. Rafe meets the beautiful Navy nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale, here without a hint of her British accent, and looking damn good in a kimono), they fall in love, he goes off to the European war, leaving both Evelyn and his best pal Danny behind... it goes on and on. Without giving everything away, know that there's a big communication breakdown, which leads Evelyn and Danny to get closer, and that (come on, you just know that Ben Affleck isn't going to disappear after the first half-hour) eventually there will be a fight, of sorts, for the girl.

But then that nastiness at Pearl Harbor does happen, after the film has gone back and forth, back and forth, in a very convincing manner, between America (What will they do?) and Japan (Here's what they're going to do.). It doesn't matter at all that everyone watching this knows what's coming. The filmmakers are skilled enough to keep suspense turned up high, even with all the other little romances and character developments hatching around it. And when the attack comes, it's loud, thrilling and terrifying. There are bullets and bombs and torpedoes and utter pandemonium. And the special effects work -- with miniatures and computer graphics and explosions, all set around running and screaming people and life-size props -- is everything it's been built up to be.

There's a tossup as to which is the more harrowing stuff -- the huge battleship slowly turning over and sinking with so many of its men still trapped inside, or the jittery, hand-held-camera look at what's going on inside the Pearl Harbor hospital as the invasion hits and the beds fill with bloody, mangled men.

Acting kudos go to Affleck (I can't believe I wrote that), who has been so wooden in previous performances, but is totally believable here; to Hartnett, who delivers a perfect picture of a character getting by on charm and boyish good looks; and to Jon Voight, pretty much unrecognizable, who powerfully plays President Roosevelt.

This is not a bad film. It's almost always engaging. But its construction, which ends up making the troubled romance almost more important than what most people are expecting it to focus on, gets in the way. And even when it feels like the film could be over, a whole new act is introduced, which at first feels tacked on, then gives it closure. If that could've happened a half-hour earlier, with less "human interest" stuff and more history and action, maybe blockbuster status would've been assured.

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