The agonizingly long wait for Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s (BVHE) Blu-ray debut is finally over with this week’s release of Dinosaur, Eight Below, The Great Raid and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The Great Raid is a noteworthy choice for BVHE to enter the Blu-ray arena as it offers an entry in the successful World War II genre, the first to date. It also features a finale firefight filmed entirely at night, a common trouble area for video compression to properly handle.
The Great Raid is a retelling of the elite 6th Ranger Battalion’s raid on a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines to set free over 500 American prisoners in January, 1945. With World War II in its waning months, the raid served no useful to the grand military campaign but it did strike a chord with the Rangers who were willing to risk their lives to save men they didn’t know. And to do so, they would have to sneak through enemy occupied areas and while numbering a little over 100 go up against nearly a thousand Japanese troops, with many more thousands only a couple miles away.
With an amazingly courageous story to tell presented on a platter, the filmmakers” vision should have resulted in a grandiose version of Saving Private Ryan. Yet The Great Raid never lives up to its promise of emotionally powerful valor through fault of reliance on abiding by the minutia of history, an unnecessary subplot involving an underground resistance movement against the Japanese, forgettable cardboard main characters ” save for one – and a running time at least a half hour too long. The actual raid takes up only the final moments of the two-hour plus film.
As a fan of historical war films I wanted to care about the Lieutenant Colonel (Benjamin Bratt) and his Captain (James Franco) slowly making their way towards the camp, but the actors provide nothing other than stone faced, clichéd portrayals of the hardnosed commanding officer and the smarter, argumentative underling. By the time each was engaged in the raid, I really didn’t care if they, or any of the other faceless soldiers for that matter, lived or died. The only moments that strike an emotional chord involve Daniel, a resilient POW dieing of malaria, and the torturous and murderous attacks by the Japanese against the prisoners. Every time I became emotionally involved in these scenes, the direction would pull away to focus on the resistant movement or unnecessary footage of soldiers slowly making their way through cornfields. A little more emphasis on the human drama would have gone a long way towards The Great Raid not feeling like The Great Bore.
Like scores of World War II films before it, The Great Raid has been passed through a filter that mutes the color palette to create an aged, almost sepia toned look. The most dramatically affected detail is in the sky where blue is replaced by a dull white. In this sky is where the 1080p MPEG-4/AVC transfer suffers from an irritating flaw. Roughly every 10 seconds in scenes with a fixed sky shot, most of which are early on when the Rangers are planning their raid, a gray horizontal line moves through the sky from bottom to top. Once one is picked up the rest are impossible to ignore.
Early high definition adopters hold high hopes for MPEG-4/AVC compression, especially in light of the issues suffered by MPEG-2 on earlier Blu-ray Discs. I’m happy to report that aside from the smidgeon of scan lines, this shadowy and mostly dark film looks stellar in high definition. The true test comes during the raid which is shot entirely at night. Light sources are restricted to a few light posts, explosions and gunfire bursts. Never during these scenes is there a hint of macro-blocking or a loss of clarity.
The PCM 5.1 48 kHz, 16-bit uncompressed audio track is by no means overpowering but does its job properly enveloping the viewer into the story and packs the proper punch when called upon. Surround use is both subtle and constant with a balanced mix of the score and ambient noise. It’s the impacting moments such as the pop from an executioner’s pistol or the rumbling approach of a bomber plane that open the door for the uncompressed audio to shine.
Along with a Movie Showcase that offers direct access to three home theater worthy scenes: two from the raid and one of a plane flyover distraction; the only available additional feature is an Audio Commentary borrowed from the DVD with Director John Dahl, Producer Marty Katz, Technical Advisor Captain Dale Dye, Editor Scott Chestnut and Author Hampton Sides. This diverse bunch each brings a unique angle to the roundtable resulting in an historical and moviemaking discussion in many ways more interesting than the feature they’re talking over. Not to be found on this disc is a Blu-scape 1080p exclusive film that is available on both Dinosaur and Eight Below.
The Great Raid is destined to linger in virtual obscurity amongst the annals of war films. Perhaps that’s why BVHE has chosen their first wave of Blu-ray titles to include it, knowing early adopters are hungry for new films they’d otherwise never look twice at. That crowd may find the film leans towards disappointing given what could have easily been, but there are far worse choices out there and I think the high definition presentation, while not the best, will still live up to most Blu-ray owners expectations.
– Dan Bradley