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Romantic subplot a bomb

Review: 'Pearl Harbor' a 'Titanic' ride, a movie zero


By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Even though Touchstone Pictures' mega-budgeted melodrama, "Pearl Harbor," is "only" three hours long, it feels like the first five months of World War II told in real time.

Director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer obviously sat through several hundred viewings of "Titanic" in preparation for this epic stab at gainful patriotism. All the elements of that movie are on display, and then some ... and then some more, and then some more again.

Forget the concession stand. They should set up a mess tent at back of the theater and feed the audience in shifts.

First it's a buddy picture. Then it becomes a love story. Then it's an effects-heavy action movie. Then it's a love story again. Then it's a different action movie. Then it gets back to being a love story. These aren't just quick sequences, mind you. Each new interlude operates like a renegade bomber that's broken off from the rest of the squadron on a self-generated mission.

Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale star in 'Pearl Harbor'

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It's tempting to say that it wasn't the filmmakers' goal to get the audience rooting for the Japanese to make their deadly air strike, but that's too forgiving. Given Randall Wallace's ludicrously under-written screenplay -- and Bruckheimer's vulgar, self-serving "let's honor the dead" marketing approach -- it's obvious that the attack is the only reason anyone was interested. A lot of people will rightfully be crowing about the technically astonishing battle scenes that take up over an hour of screen time. But getting there is a cliche-ridden, often laughable chore.

Panels from a comic strip

Ben Affleck, in slightly stronger form than usual, stars as the improbably named Rafe McCawley, a cocky Tennessee-bred fighter pilot who's just itchin' to get behind the stick in a combat situation. Rafe and his childhood friend, Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), have joined the Army Air Corps while the U.S. is still avoiding the overseas fray. Bay conveys apparently bothersome bits of historical perspective via a few fake newsreels that run literally about six seconds each. Like everything else in the movie besides the battle scenes, they seem like panels from a comic strip.

In the early going, when Rafe meets and falls in love with a beautiful nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), you get the uneasy feeling that you're watching outtakes from Steven Spielberg's 1979 misfire, "1941." The couple's courtship is painted in the broadest possible comic strokes. Beckinsale is a gorgeous woman, and a pretty good actress, so you like her. But she and the other nurses (including model James King, who's sweet and genuine) are portrayed as man-hungry nincompoops. Their single-minded shallowness is one of the picture's most embarrassing elements.

It takes forever for Affleck to join a British fighter squadron in Europe, leaving Beckinsale and Hartnett back in Hawaii. Rafe is then shot down and crashes into the ocean, at which point we're supposed to believe that Affleck is a goner 55 minutes into his own movie. Yeah, right. Evelyn and Danny, of course, become an item, then Rafe "unexpectedly" returns from the dead.

This is the single most hysterical stretch of the film. Rafe's explanation to Evelyn of how he managed to survive his ordeal consists of a couple of sweeping details and Affleck saying, "I'll tell you about it later" -- which he never does. His reaction when he determines that Beckinsale and Hartnett are a pair is also classic: He looks like a caveman slowly realizing how to work a yo-yo.

Spectacular video-game battle sequences

Shortly thereafter, to quote Bob Dylan, the fast bullets fly, and it's every bit as impressive as you expect it to be. The editing is razor-sharp, the sound swirls around you, and Bay handles the difficult spatial relations of aerial combat without losing the audience. The sinking of the battleship Arizona is especially spectacular, but, as you sit there marveling at it, you can't help but feel ashamed of yourself. (Cuba Gooding, Jr. is one of the sailors, though his character could just as easily have been played by a stick figure.)

Hardly a "Saving Private Ryan"-style immersion in the utter hellishness of warfare, the attack plays like -- you guessed it -- "Titanic" mated with a groundbreaking Nintendo cartridge. When Affleck and Hartnett commandeer a couple of planes and take out after the Japanese flyers, their whooping and hollering conveniently ignores the carnage taking place on the ground.

Bay and Bruckheimer want it both ways. They expensively illustrate the destruction of the bombing, but understand the economics of their audience falling into despair. Bring on those crazy, boastful flyboys!

No losing in this 'Pearl Harbor'

This mindset engenders yet another extremely long-winded string of sequences after the events of December 7, during which Rafe and Danny join Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin, hamming it up like crazy) on his heroic bombing run over Tokyo. After all, you don't want people to leave the theater with America looking like a loser.

Unfortunately, by then, you're lucky if you can still feel your legs.

So what separates "Pearl Harbor" from an infantile pep rally like "The Mummy Returns"? The same thing that gooses the value of real estate: location, location, location. If it weren't for the words "Pearl" and "Harbor," and the very real fallen men and women whose deaths are dramatized during the battle scenes, there wouldn't be any difference at all. This is an exploitation picture hiding behind the flag, a national tragedy turned into a billion-dollar video game. What a shame that it takes a couple of hucksters to remind this country that pride and honor are actually supposed to mean something.

It's not exactly a scoop to say that there's death and destruction in "Pearl Harbor," though it's not especially gruesome (R ratings also hurt the box office). Look for Jon Voight, wearing a fake chin, as FDR, and Dan Aykroyd, wearing a fake expression of concern, as a naval officer. Rated PG-13.

• 'Pearl Harbor' - official site

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