You ever wish someone would remake Stalag 17 and hire John Grisham to write the screenplay? If so, I've got just the movie you've been waiting for.
Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell) is a fortunate son; his father, a United States senator, has seen to it that Hart has spent World War II behind a desk. But the reality of the conflict comes crashing down on him when he is captured by German soldiers while playing chauffer to a superior officer. Hart is tortured by his captors until he reveals the location of several strategic fuel dumps, after which he's sent to a POW camp. The ranking American officer in the camp is Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis); intuiting that Hart broke under interrogation, McNamara orders him to bunk with the enlisted men. Hart almost immediately runs afoul of Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), a former cop who is the camp's resident schemer/black market kingpin. Hart's relationship with his fellow detainees is further strained by the arrival of Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon) and Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard), two Tuskegee Airmen who were shot down behind enemy lines. Despite their rank, McNamara also orders them into the enlisted men's quarters. The racist Bedford refuses to acknowledge Archer and Scott as superior officers or fellow human beings, even going so far as to frame Archer for concealing a weapon underneath his bunk. After the weapon is discovered, Archer is hauled out into the courtyard and ordered executed by Colonel Visser (Marcel Iures), the camp commandant. Bedford is found murdered a short time later, and the evidence points to Scott as the killer. Hart, who was a law student before being drafted, is ordered by McNamara to serve as Scott's counsel during the subsequent court-martial. Both Hart and Scott realize they're simply pawns in what is nothing more than a kangaroo court, but neither is aware of exactly what McNamara has planned.
Given the source material, Hart's War turned out a hell of a lot better than it had any right to. Screenwriters Terry George and Billy Ray took the smart approach when it came to adapting John Katzenbach's novel: they kept the basic plot, chucked the laughable dialogue, and tinkered with the characters. (Katzenbach is a serviceable plotter, but he has no idea how people think or talk.) Combine their efforts with those of a skilled director who cut teeth in episodic television (in this case Primal Fear's Gregory Hoblit), toss in a game cast, and what you end up with is a movie that never quite completely rises above its fast food fiction origins (a feat both Jaws and The Godfather were able to accomplish), yet still manages to be a rather compelling, entertaining piece of work.
The setup of Hart's War is better than the payoff, but the payoff ain't bad. The buildup to the courtroom sequence far outshines the trial itself, and the last third of the story requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, as logic is tossed out the window on a couple of occasions. That being said, the quality of the first two acts will likely win you over enough to make some of the more farfetched aspects of the final forty minutes a little easier to take. Truth be told, my only real complaint against the movie is its somewhat lackadaisical pacing. The story doesn't really kick into high gear until Shannon and Howard arrive onscreen; there's a stretch between the opening sequences and their arrival that drags just a bit and would have benefited from a trim or two.
I think the filmmakers and cast are to be commended for not going the easy route and making all the characters stereotypes. Given that the tale is populated by a racially diverse group of soldiers and several Nazi officers, as well as a bigot or two, you'd expect everyone to've been spit out by an automated cookie cutter, but thankfully that's not the case. Sure, the characters aren't as complex as your average real-life human being, but they are developed enough so as not to be merely cogs employed to drive the machinery of the plot. And there's no simple delineation between Good and Evil here; while I was able to figure out the killer's identity fairly early on, his motives remained unclear until the climax approached. (I have to admit that shading all of the characters did lend a head-scratching quality to much of the ending's talk about honor and duty, but so be it.) And, in a move that shocked me, the speechifying is kept to a minimum. Any point a particular character attempts to make generally--but not always--comes in the form of a line of clever, pointed dialogue. Unfortunately, these days that's something of a lost art.