There’s not much that Christian Bale won’t do to himself for a movie role (see The Machinist if you need further evidence), yet it continues to be quite astonishing the depths he’s willing to go for a role.

This is a film based on one of Herzog’s own documentaries, and the more rediculous and over-the-top elements are certainly that way because of verisimilitude, not some Hollywood hype grab. The film is bookended nicely, and to the credit of all involved gets into the story quickly, and out just as fast.

The middle section, the P.O.W. story, is grim and effective. A very accomplished film, and Bale continues to impress with his craft.

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(full Review originally posted at Ain’t-it-Cool News)

We’ve seen it before — the bamboo cages, the teeming jungle, sweaty guards and ill-fed prisoners. One half expects a game of Russian roulette, or a bag held tight over a guy’s head with a rat inside. It’s all been done before, in countless films, from DEER HUNTER to RAMBO, this story of Vietnam POWs overcoming the odds and finding some form of redemption. What’s unique about RESCUE DAWN, a fact that ironically burdens the film with a greater sense of incredulity than the most jingoistic action romp, is that it’s a true story.

In remaking the tale told in 1997’s documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY, Herzog does a wonderful thing — he wastes no time in getting to the heart of the story. Just minutes into the running time we are already where we’re expecting to be, thrust inside those cages, witnessing the snarling guards and feeling the sticky heat of the jungle. There is no hour long buildup to get us in the mood of entrapment. Instead, with almost brutal suddenness, the film is setup, launched, and crashed into the central themes of the plot.

The film is a study in the unique insanity brought about through imprisonment, malnutrition and hopelessness. Once we are with Dieter and friends in the prison camp, the pace of the film dramatically shifts down in gear, as the plots for escape develop, alliances are drawn, and the complicated relationship between prisoner and guard is expanded upon. Slowly, each cliché of the genre is eroded, and the inevitable escape seems, weirdly, almost bitter-sweet, release without catharsis, often more excruciating than the imprisonment itself. The trials of being on the run in the unforgiving jungle is what sets this film apart, and the brutal interchanges between the characters throughout the latter phase of the film elevate RESCUE DAWN to something quite wonderful.

The film’s greatest special effect is, of course, star Christian Bale. Like his role in the overlooked Machinist, his physical transformation into Dieter is simply breathtaking to witness. His wide-eyed intensity and drive to survive at any cost reeks of verisimilitude, and it’s a performance worthy of more recognition than it is likely to accrue. The other prisoners, and even the guards, never seem two dimensional, and they appear to have real histories that, if not fully developed in this film, nonetheless inform their decisions throughout. Of particular note is Steve Zahn’s character Duane, played with emaciated frame and sickly wit. His sense of doom provides excellent counterpoint to the seemingly improbable self reliance of Dieter.

While Duane holds on to the idea of the cavalry swooping in to rescue, Dieter sense of survival drives the story ever forward, almost blindly, almost to a fault. It is this dynamic that drives the central portion of the film, and in lesser hands it could have descended into a banal morality play, providing overt metaphor for notions of courage and fear. With Herzog’s deft direction, it provides the basis for a tense, compelling, accessible action film.

In the end, this is what is all the more remarkable about RESCUE DAWN. With all its pretenses, its poetry and its polemical elements, this is a straight-ahead, enjoyable to watch war flick. There are no long, boring tracking shots providing gratuitous context or sense of wonder, no tedious monologues about the nature of good and evil. There is simply the close up, taut view of a unique form of crazy required to survive in the face of utter, complete, and a fully rational sense of despair. It’s as if Delta Force somehow inherited European art-house sensibilities, but in a good way.

This may not be the definitive Vietnam or POW escape film, but RESCUE DAWN deserves to be seen and celebrated. It is a unique telling of this well-tread tale, told with enough smarts, suspense and brutal moments of unique action sequences that it warrants a wide audience.