Hart's War is many things, none of them memorable or really even very good. First and foremost, I suppose, is that it enters the post-Sept. 11 marketplace as a World War II picture about integrity. Or perhaps for perennial underdog studio MGM, it's a Bruce Willis is-he-a-good-guy, is-he-a-bad-guy hard-ass action story that cuts together nicely as a 30-second television spot.
But as the movie begins, it's notable as an art film, a kind of journey into the dark of day, where daylight's a matter of relative darks, shot with such a wet, rainy mood you'd swear the cinematographer was a veteran of Polish cinema (in fact, the tremendously versatile Alar Kivilo is a Finn, and he shot the equally chilly A Simple Plan). But after the sleight-of-hand in a lovely opening action sequence -- a Jeep-machine-gun-and-airplane battle cut together from a stellar selection of compacted focal lengths, eccentric camera placements and dazzling bits of action detail -- we're introduced to Tommy Hart, an earnest young Irish American with a shaky accent who's on a train to a German POW camp in the last days of World War II. We might hope for a revisiting of the wartime misadventures of The Dirty Dozen or Stalag 17.
But it doesn't get better: we're in for a spoiled pretty-boy-against-the-system thriller (An Officer and a Preppie, anyone?). But we are not yet at the end of the line. In fact, director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fallen) is setting us up for a strenuous courtroom drama, a makeshift court martial assembled to try a soldier who is blatantly innocent for murder. Why does Willis' sober Col. William McNamara, who runs the barracks of officers and enlisted men, want this man tried, convicted and dispensed with? Plot twists ensue -- few fresh, none believable.
Set almost entirely inside the camp, Hart's War is about as thrilling as watching television with a Tourette's-worthy complement of F-words. Ah, but then the truest agenda is revealed: we are watching a message movie. Hart's War has arrived to tell us at this late date in the history of American movies that racism is wrong, and that the Black soldier who is being railroaded can teach us all, particularly the film's white characters, a lesson about what integrity, honor and sacrifice can be. You can imagine Hoblit with fellow director Frank Darabont, having cool Martinis at Hollywood's Musso & amp; Frank, discussing the potential of the Noble Negro as a plot device.
Can one man's sacrifice change the lives of his fellow soldiers? Excellent topic, ripe with drama. Terrence Howard, a charming actor shoehorned into a cardboard role, does all he can do with the mush he's given to speak. But the script is 40-year-old nonsense that would have been insulting in the mid-1960s when Sidney Poitier was the first, but sadly not the last, bearer of such upstandingly righteous roles.
Hoblit's stately horrors are accompanied by a score by Rachel Portman (The Full Monty), and the production design is by Lily Kilvert. It's interesting that such a movie has two key collaborators who are women, yet it just shows they can get down in the dirt and do second-rate work as well as the men can.
"F---- you!" as Willis gets to say in Die Hard-grimace harder mode, "What the f---- would you know about duty?"
Movies can be many things, but they are all too often only acts of representation, of reheating cliches, rather than being works of witness. A movie about integrity should leave you more to ponder than the stability of Willis' hairpiece in a series of gusts, gales and cartoonish display of anger.