'Hart's War'

Bruce Willis, right, with Colin Farrell, stars in "Hart's War" as a prisoner of war plotting to do some damage and escape the Nazis as well. (MURRAY CLOSE)

From "Stalag 17" through "The Great Escape," prisoner-of-war movies set in German camps during World War II were a lot simpler back then. Guys groused about the enemy and tried to break out with a zeal so convincingly parodied in the animated "Chicken Run" that it seemed the genre had run its course. "Hart's War" tries to bring it back in a modernized, updated form, with limited success.

There's a lot, of course, that's comfortingly old shoe about "Hart's War," which takes place in the mythical Stalag VIA (maybe all the good numbers were taken) in Germany near the end of the conflict.

Among the especially familiar elements are thuggish German guards rushing into barracks and shouting "raus, raus" at all hours of the day and night and the sneering Nazi officers holding cigarettes in an affected way and saying clipped things like "Once again I am forced to remind you that escape is not a sport." And of course those ever-glib American soldiers always ready with a quip. Asked who's in charge, one witty American prisoner cracks, "by the looks of things, it's Adolf Hitler." Based on a novel of the same name by John Katzenbach, which was in turn inspired by the experiences of his father, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Nicholas Katzenbach, "Hart's War" has a lot more than business as usual going on in its camp. There are crisp action sequences, intense interrogations, a major subplot about racism and another about codes of honor and betrayal. That doesn't even get into the psychological duel between Bruce Willis' character and the German who runs the camp that ends up morphing into a full-blown courtroom drama.

Given all this, it's not surprising that the script by Billy Ray and Terry George has trouble finding a focus and maintaining credibility.

Well-done aspects alternate with less successful ones, and the film throws so many twists and surprises at us that it becomes unconvincing. Only the reliable professionalism of director Gregory Hoblit ("Frequency," "Fallen," "Primal Fear" and a lot of dramatic TV) keeps things from getting even more out of hand than they sometimes do.

Perhaps the film's biggest surprise is its first one: Though his huge picture in combat gear is the only thing on the "Hart's War" poster, Willis does, in fact, not play Hart. That role goes to the gifted Irish actor Colin Farrell, much in demand after his debut in the Vietnam war film "Tigerland."

It's young lieutenant Tommy Hart whose voice-over starts things off. Stationed in Belgium, "miles from the front and a stranger to war," Hart is wild to prove himself in battle and irked that his powerful U.S. senator father has seen to it that combat is not on his radar. The war, however, proves closer than Hart imagines, and the first of numerous unexpected turns of events lands him in enemy hands, first as the subject of intense interrogation sessions and then as an inmate of that grim POW camp.

At Stalag VIA, Hart is debriefed about his experiences by the Americans' ranking officer, Col. William McNamara (Willis), a fourth-generation West Pointer. Though he can't put his finger on exactly why, his reception by both the great man and his fellow officers is distinctly chilly, so much so that he is told there's no room in the officers' tent and he'll have to bunk with the enlisted men.

Played by Willis in one of his most frequently utilized acting styles--the unemotional stoic with the steely gaze--McNamara would put the chill on any situation. No-nonsense, intense, indomitable, the colonel is also somewhat of a cipher, someone whose thoughts and motives only gradually become clear.

As for Hart, he soon has lots of other things to worry about, including the arrival of a pair of black aviators (Terrence Howard, Vicellous Shannon) whose presence in the barracks infuriates a standard-issue racist sergeant (Cole Hauser). The colonel puts Hart in charge of protecting the aviators from the generally antagonistic white soldiers they're bunking with. .

Hart also has increasingly complex dealings with the German officer in charge of the camp, Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures), an unusual type who has what just might be the only set of "Negro jazz" records in the entire Wehrmacht. Visser is engaged in a war of nerves with McNamara, and the ways in which the lieutenant, played with an appropriate malleability by Farrell, gets involved in this is one of "Hart's War's" more intriguing aspects.

Less fascinating and finally unsatisfying is the awfully familiar racism angle, a subplot that, though unusual in a POW movie, turns regrettably earnest and preachy almost immediately.

Though it mostly takes place in the confines of the camp, "Hart's War" has a good visual sense courtesy of cinematographer Alar Kivilo as well as some involving action sequences. But though it also has the ability to surprise you dramatically, it doesn't do that enough to make a difference.

*

MPAA rating: R for some strong war violence and language. Times guidelines: brief, but vivid scenes of warfare.

'Hart's War'

Bruce Willis...Col. William A. McNamara

Colin Farrell...Lt. Thomas W. Hart

Terrence Howard...Lt. Lincoln A. Scott

Cole Hauser...Staff Sgt. Vic W. Bedford

Marcel Iures...Col. Werner Visser

Linus Roache...Capt. Peter A. Ross

Vicellous Shannon...Lt. Lamar T. Archer

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures presents a David Ladd Films, David Foster Productions, Cheyenne Enterprises production, released by MGM Distribution. Director Gregory Hoblit. Producers David Ladd, David Foster, Gregory Hoblit, Arnold Rifkin. Executive producer Wolfgang Glattes. Screenplay by Billy Ray and Terry George, based on the novel by John Katzenbach. Cinematographer Alar Kivilo. Editor David Rosenbloom. Costume designer Elisabetta Beraldo. Music Rachel Portman. Production designer Lilly Kilvert. Art director Martin Kurel. Set decorator Patrick Cassidy. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

In general release.