Fans of seedy little noir movies might remember John Dahl's name. He made that mischievous Nicolas Cage number, ''Red Rock West," and ''The Last Seduction," a first-rate double-cross thriller with Linda Fiorentino, the tough, sexy actress who was born 50 years too late for the major career she deserved.
So, perhaps, was Dahl. In those movies from the early '90s, and even in the undercooked gambling picture ''Rounders" and 2001's underrated road-trip nightmare, ''Joy Ride," Dahl demonstrated a sly, classical style. He'd get a story and stick menacingly to it.
Dahl's career never took off, in part because he lacked the ambition of a Steven Soderbergh, who used his seedy little noirs to become the sort of director who conquers the movie business with glossy variations on the real thing. But Dahl hasn't given up. His new movie, ''The Great Raid," recounts a little-remembered chapter of World War II in which a band of Army soldiers rescued 500 American prisoners of war from Japanese camps in the Philippines.
It's not a noir, and while the story allows Dahl to build a number of scenes with hard-nosed rigor, ''The Great Raid" has a terrible time hanging together. The film splits its two hours among the starving, malaria-stricken prisoners, their military saviors, and the medical guardians who risk their lives to sneak quinine to the sickly soldiers.
At the camp, Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) tries to keep his men's spirits up, even as he lies on a cot queasy with malaria, wondering about his lady love, the American nurse, played by the gorgeous Scandinavian skyscraper Connie Nielsen. She's spearheading the covert quinine delivery in Manila. The Japanese are brutal. Naturally, the men thirst for escape.
Meanwhile, the soldiers who've embarked to find their comrades are a stock assortment of dutiful -- OK, bland -- heroes, commanded by Benjamin Bratt, an actor who seems incapable of living up to the promise of his matinee-idol face. But none of the cast is given much opportunity to act. James Franco, an actor who can be dangerously coiled, just seems to be spitting out lines. Fiennes doesn't register entirely. And in her scenes with the Filipino and Japanese actors, Nielsen suggests, briefly, a pulpier, campier wartime melodrama that the movie is too dutiful to indulge.
A lot of the trouble is that the movie has been adapted from two different books on the subject, ''The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" by William B. Breuer and ''Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides, and its screenwriters and editor haven't bothered to weave a harmonious narrative from them. They've also failed to make the Filipino and the Japanese characters more than their nationalities.
The cast and crew are mere passengers in history's sidecar, anyway. The most moving moments come with the archival footage of the actual soldiers and their homecoming that plays over the closing credits.
On screen, at least, the raid to free the prisoners isn't all that great -- just a bunch of explosions and combat maneuvers. Still, it's the one sequence in the film where everybody works with the same conviction. The audience, meanwhile, has to sit around with the prisoners, waiting for this to happen. It's a long wait.
Ulimately, the requirements of a war picture don't play to Dahl's strengths. There are shady characters on screen, but because the movie is ultimately meant as a work of valor, there's no occasion for the director to revel in mischief. Good and bad are labeled with blatant economy, like canned goods on a supermarket shelf.
''The Great Raid" amounts to a noble failure. This is sad news for those of us who remain hopelessly partial to Dahl's mean streak. The failure we can live with. It's the noble part that will never do.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.