Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
From the moment Lt. Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell) is captured by the Germans we are once again immersed in the horrors of war. Hart's journey to the POW camp is fraught with danger; the Allies who don't know POW's are onboard attack his transport train. Once at the camp he immediately finds himself at odds with Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis) the ranking POW. Believing the story will ultimately be about Hart's perseverance in the camp the plot suddenly twists into a courtroom drama. McNamara assigns Hart to defend the camp's lone black prisoner Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) a Tuskeegee airman who has been wrongly accused of murdering a white prisoner. Hart who had been a second-year law student before he joined the war struggles to prepare for his client's trial and even accepts help from the German commandant Werner Visser (Marcel Iures). Yet McNamara's real motive is to use the trial as a diversion for an elaborate escape attempt. It all comes to a head at the conclusion of the trial where duty honor and sacrifice become more than just words.
The acting is solid and incredibly believable. The performances are so spot-on that they blend seamlessly into the overall tapestry of the film and the story becomes the true star. Farrell last seen in the forgettable American Outlaws is given much more to work with in this movie and turns in a fine performance. Willis has finally found a rhythm in his career. He may wear the grimace that we've all seen before throughout the film but his Col. McNamara is a fairly complex individual. We aren't sure if his character is being honorable or not which is a real credit to Willis' acting ability. Howard does a nice job too as the hapless airman. The true standout however is Iures. He gives a multi-layered performance as the German commandant a lover of American music and culture who feels he must run the camp in accordance to the German Army's strictures because it's his job. Iures is Romania's answer to Laurence Olivier and his skills are quite evident: his scenes with either Farrell or Willis are the best in the movie.
Based on the John Katzenbach novel of the same name this isn't your standard World War II POW movie by any means. Katzenbach wrote the book about his own father's real-life experiences during WWII and makes the plot a combination of Stalag 17 and A Few Good Men. The courtroom drama holds prominence and is ultimately what makes this movie worth seeing. Director Gregory Hoblit cemented his reputation as a courtroom and thriller director by directing episodes of TV's Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law and then moving onto the big screen with Primal Fear. Here he expertly draws us into the drama contrasting the bleakness of war with the courage of the soldiers. The only problem with the film is the jarring contrast of the themes: for a while it's a war film then it's a courtroom drama before ultimately becoming an escape flick. For good measure the issue of racism is also explored. Somehow the story lines blend well. And though the film takes it time getting to the meat of the story once you are there it's completely riveting.