Mixing two seemingly surefire genres—the P.O.W. movie and the courtroom thriller—Hart’s War doesn’t bother to compete with Stalag 17 and Anatomy of a Murder, or even Chicken Run and My Cousin Vinny. Its World War II detainees hardly speak of escape, and instead stage a court-martial when one of their own is accused of murder in a German camp. Yet after a sooty, brutal opening sequence, in which the hero, Lieutenant Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), falls into enemy hands and quickly crumbles under questioning, the movie gets muted and routine: Hart, a Yalie law student, is assigned to defend an accused American; the only defense is to find the real killer.
Gregory Hoblit, who directed the slick legal thriller Primal Fear, makes dull work of Hart‘s oddly nonconfrontational courtroom proceedings. As the studio’s marketing campaign has annoyingly revealed, the trial is all a diversion. There’s a factory next door to the stalag that makes either munitions or shoes. (But mein general, to situate a P.O.W camp so close to our very important “shoe factory”? Is this not unvise at ze height of ze vahr?) It’s also distracting to wonder why the top-ranking U.S. officer, Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis, terse and squinty), has forced two Tuskegee-trained officers (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Shannon) to bunk with the lowly enlisted men—is he a racist or does he simply mistrust all new arrivals?
As the camp commandant, Marcel Iures (the sleazy general from Kristin Scott Thomas’s best movie, An Unforgettable Summer) has a semi-hilarious role to play, and he seems to know it: His SS Major Visser (a Yale man, too) is forever slinking out of the shadows or stumbling drunkenly around his office to the tune of his beloved jazz records as if searching for his monocle and neck brace. At times, Colin Farrell really does have the eager-spaniel look of a boy who would, after three missed meals, tell the Nazis everything. As a lawyer, Hart has a diffident courtroom style that is unexpectedly charming. As a soldier, though, he’s more comfortable with nice shoes than with bombs, and that, along with a lot of other sideways moves, throws Hart’s War seriously off balance.