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.