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Hart of Darkness

Bruce Willis's World War II movie aims at seriousness, but its only moral resonance is in an unintended connection with 9/11; John Q, a hospital hostage drama, is brain-dead.

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Geneva conventional: Colin Farrell as Lieutenant Tommy Hart, left, and Bruce Willis as Colonel William McNamara in Hart's War.  

Impressively re-created right down to the last glint of barbed wire, the sprawling German POW camp in the new Bruce Willis movie Hart's War looks like an aboveground dungeon. It's the most imposing thing about the film -- and the only aspect that rings true. As for the rest, we're situated in that familiar showbiz intersection of Hollywood and Rhine.

Hogan's Heroes didn't exactly advance the cause of realism, while Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, to take the two most celebrated movie examples, were greatly entertaining without ever being entirely believable as firsthand accounts (though numerous contributors to those films had firsthand wartime experience). The attempt at a greater gravity in Hart's War, at least in terms of its production design, works at cross purposes with the hokeyness of so much else in the movie. Why go to all this trouble if the people who parade through the compound spout the same old Hollywoodspeak?

Willis plays Colonel William McNamara, a fourth-generation military man and the camp's highest-ranking American officer. The lead protagonist, however, is Lieutenant Tommy Hart (the engagingly bland Colin Farrell), a senator's son and Yale Law student who is assigned by McNamara to bunk with the enlisted men and draws their ire for siding with two downed Tuskegee airmen (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Shannon) housed in the same barracks. Hart's War is being sold as yet another tribute to the Greatest Generation, but it also deals with its wartime racism, albeit in a way that harks back to Home of the Brave and vintage Sidney Poitier movies. When one of the airmen, Howard's Lieutenant Lincoln Scott, is accused of murdering a bigoted enlistee (a scarily effective Cole Hauser), he's put on trial, with Hart as his defense attorney and McNamara as presiding judge. Terrence Howard is a marvelous actor, but he's required to turn Lieutenant Scott into such a paragon of righteousness that his trial, where he's obviously being railroaded, resembles a religious martyrdom.

The director, Gregory Hoblit, also made the courtroom drama Primal Fear and worked on numerous episodes of L.A. Law, and he seems more comfortable with the trial sequences, which have a Perry Mason-ish tang, than with the rest of the carryings-on -- the harassing and tunneling and saluting. The German commandant, Colonel Wilhelm Visser, though well played by the Romanian actor Marcel Iures, is a stock ingredient in this Hollywood gumbo: the Nazi who's wise to American ways. Visser knows all about racism in America, and he knows the country's laws, having also attended Yale Law School. He loves Mark Twain and plays Sidney Bechet recordings on the phonograph in his Art Deco quarters. He's so much more interesting than the quietly seething, buttoned-up McNamara that he makes you question your loyalties: If nothing else, his taste in music is impeccable.

At one point, after a particularly atrocious punishment meted out by the Nazis, McNamara confronts Visser about ignoring the rules of the Geneva Convention and the colonel replies, "This is not Geneva." I wonder: Will this moment resonate with audiences in a way it wouldn't have before Guantanamo? A movie like Hart's War, for all its realistic trappings, is essentially escapism. And yet it inadvertently pushes the 9/11 button. The real world is going to intrude a lot this year at the movies. Better get used to it.

Sometimes it takes a truly terrible movie to make you appreciate the mediocre ones. John Q, the worst big movie I've seen in this young year, stars Denzel Washington as a factory worker with inadequate medical coverage who takes hostage the emergency room of a Chicago hospital in a last-ditch effort to force the venal administrators there to give his dying 10-year-old boy (Daniel E. Smith) a heart transplant. Directed by Nick Cassavetes and written by James Kearns, it pulls out more stops than that old silent serial The Perils of Pauline. Unfortunately, it's a talkie. The film co-stars Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta, and Kimberly Elise: Is it possible none of these actors read the script before they signed on? Were New Line executives perhaps too hung up on hobbits to notice how whacked out this movie is?

To take one minor example: We are shown a very brief clip of the movie director Ted Demme, who recently died of a heart attack, on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect. You would think that someone connected with this film, in the interests of good taste, would have snipped that clip. Or take a major example: Why does the film all but canonize John for his lawless exploits? It's one thing to be mad as hell at the HMOs, but the movie practically turns hostage-taking into an act of parental duty. And, of course, the hostages -- except for a racist girlfriend batterer (Shawn Hatosy) -- think John's a cool guy.

Early on, we're treated to a TV clip of President Bush stumping for his economic programs, which looks suspiciously like a clip of candidate Bush on the hustings. John Q was designed to be ripped from today's headlines, but it seems to take place before the recession. (Haven't 401k administrators replaced HMO executives as our corporate villains du jour?) Not content to cauterize the national health-care system, the filmmakers also go after the media, personified by a Ken-doll newscaster who broadcasts on national television, without John's knowledge, Papa's parting moments with his perpetually expiring son. It's an exclusive, and the newscaster is exultant: The boost to his reputation will pay for that white Bronco he's always wanted. The people responsible for this movie are in no position to castigate others for their shamelessness. Nick Cassavetes once directed Unhook the Stars, a quietly humane domestic drama starring his mother, Gena Rowlands. Did he, along with his cast, undergo a radical talent-ectomy?

There's a whole lotta scratchin' going on in Scratch, a loose-limbed documentary about the hip-hop D.J. scene that, for know-nothings like me, is highly informative without being in the least academic. The director, Doug Pray, even gets into the groove himself; his visuals and editing rhythms bounce right along to the beat.

Hart's War
Directed by Gregory Hoblit; starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell.
John Q
Directed by Nick Cassavetes; starring Denzel Washington and James Woods.


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