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Hollywood's Great Constant

What the critical reaction to "The Great Raid" and "The Constant Gardener" tells us about the film industry's relationship with reality.

12:00 AM, Sep 7, 2005 • By EDWARD MORRISSEY
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POINTING OUT the sorry state of filmmaking has become a summer tradition over the past few years, usually due to the target market of the movies released during this season. It seems as though half the films released after Memorial Day have roman numerals following the title and the other half are based on a comic books or defunct television series. The story of Hollywood's box-office slump parallels the decline in quality and original thinking.

However, two films released this summer actually aimed at adults, and the mainstream media's reactions to them provide insight into a significant disconnect from reality demonstrated by the film industry and the liberal media that covers it.

The first film, The Great Raid, told the true story of a rescue mission by Army Rangers behind enemy lines near the end of World War II. Scott Johnson recently noted the critical reaction to the film: At the website Rotten Tomatoes, where scores of film reviews are collected, only 34 percent of the participating critics gave The Great Raid positive notices, and the rate drops to 30 percent for prominent national reviewers.

Johnson noted New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden's objection to the stereotyping of Japanese camp commanders as "sadistic, slant-eyed fiend[s]." Others joined Holden in criticizing the realistic portrayal of Japanese treatment of American POWs. The Toronto Star found the picture dull, save for the "predictably sadistic Japanese commander"; Geoff Pevere writes that the movie feels like "a Rambo mission dispatched some time in the months following September 2001." The Village Voice's Mark Holcomb turned up his nose at the mere reminder of the very real atrocities:

Philippines B-movie luminary Eddie Romero wrung greater complexity from similar material 40 years ago, and his movies never trafficked in risible Japanese stereotypes or ultra-expendable Filipino bit players. The Great Raid is ultimately scotched by History Channel-worthy nostalgia.

Nearly all of these reviews take The Great Raid to task for not generating as much interest as fiction. The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes, and The Great Escape are frequently mentioned, and although the latter is based on a real escape, the studio rewrote the script in order to meet Steve McQueen's insistence on more action, more screen time, and motorcycle sequences that were entirely fictional.

It seems as though many film critics share an aversion to allowing reality to intrude on filmmaking. Or do they? The summer's other adult film aimed, The Constant Gardener, tells the tale of the murder of a British diplomat's wife who runs afoul of a pharmaceutical company while living in Kenya with her clueless husband.

Based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name, the film rehashes an almost identical plot from the 1993 film version of The Fugitive: a pharmaceutical company kills the wife of the protagonist to keep secret the deaths of its human-trial patients during the trials of its new wonder drug. The wife in The Constant Gardener, just as in The Fugitive, keeps revisiting the screen in flashbacks, although in The Fugitive Sela Ward is killed by accident. Rachel Weisz plays Tessa Quayle as such an annoyingly self-righteous campaigner that no one believes for a moment that her death was an accident. The cover-up eventually leads her diplomat husband (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate his wife's death and to complete her mission.