This isn't exactly what I was expecting from the long overdue sequel to "Miracle on 34th Street"... like, at all, but hey, if anyone can pull off a story about a black Santa Claus, it's Spike Lee, and if it's not, so help him, he'll try to make it him, or at least bug you to death about the most inconsequential of racial issues. Oh, Spike, you silly little racist, the real miracle would be you closing your peach fuzz-coated yap without having it stopped by a piece of fried chicken (Calm down, people, I'm not trying to start a riot, I'm just checking to see if Lee actually knows the difference between what is racist and isn't). Shoot, perhaps an even greater miracle would be another commercially successful Spike Lee film, but as this $45 million bomb firmly told us, that doesn't appear to be too near in the future. Oh, it doesn't matter, as Lee was not into this project for the money, as he was most interested in doing what he felt was right by... compensating for Clint Eastwood's not featuring any black people in "Flags of Our Fathers", whose featuring black soldiers in the white unit that ended up raising the American flag at Iwo Jima would be an embarrassing historical inaccuracy. Hey, maybe Lee really is doing this film strictly in honor of the black Marines of WWII, rather than to prove a point, because if historical inaccuracy is what he considers politically correct, well, then this film makes "Malcolm X" look about as empowering to blacks as "Birth of a Nation". Okay, I don't really know how inaccurate this film is, outside of its fictionalized plot, of course, but hey, the inaccuracies are mostly offensive to the Italians, who are mostly white, thus making the race issues at their expense not matter in any way at all. So yeah, I'm cool with black people, it's just that I get kind of annoyed when it comes to militant blacks, and these actually militant blacks don't really help too much, which isn't to say that there aren't aspects that help in softening the heavy blows to this misfire.
If Spike Lee has done nothing else right time and again, it's visual style, which should tell you just how much this film messes up, as it is not even as good-looking as most other films by Lee, though that's not say that it's not still quite handsome, as cinematographer Matthew Libatique plays with lighting in a way that delivers on haunting highlights, as well as paler moments that capture the grimy grit of this subject matter, particularly when it plays up the intensity of the action. Okay, let me tell you, action sequences are rather surprisingly few and far between in this film, and once they come into play, they have unnervingly amateur moments in filming and editing, so it's not like this war film delivers on thrilling combat sequences as much as many of its contemporary peers, but what action there is proves to be effective more often than not, with tight, dizzying staging that sometimes immerses you into the heat of warfare. The film has plenty of missteps in its handling of technical value that still stands to be more played up, but if the final product has nothing else going for it, it's a fair degree of technical and stylistic sharpness, which adds to the entertainment value that almost saves the film, but not without the help of highlights in substance that this film seems to deserve, because even though there are formulaic spots and plenty of other hiccups to storytelling that betray the value of this film's subject matter, there is, in fact, potential to this film's story concept, and plenty of it, and that ignites a moderate degree of immediate intrigue, brought to life by the occasional highlight in screenwriter James McBride's characterization, which is itself brought to life by highlights in acting. While I compliment the highlights in McBride's characterization, the shortcomings don't simply leave the performers with only so much room to excel, but draw superficial and cheesy characters who couldn't possibly be easy to pull off, and as if that's not a glaring enough blow to acting's quality, there is the occasional mediocre performance, with Michael Ealy being pretty surprisingly and sadly, well, terrible, but outside of the areas within this film's acting that go plagued stand plenty of decent performances, anchored by charisma and connected through chemistry. The onscreen talent isn't exactly unmissable, but it is there, and this film needs something like that, because lord knows Spike Lee's offscreen performance isn't getting the job done as well as it should, and even then, I must admit that there are moments in which the overambitious Lee puts the heart that he crams into this effort to good use by settling atmospheric overbearingness enough to give you a glimpse into what could have been. If nothing else, Lee keeps the film moving at a constant momentum that is kind of entertaining, and that carries the final product a long, long way, maybe not quite to where the film crosses over into decency, but decidedly to where the gunk of mediocrity is cleared enough for decency to almost be achieved, largely with the help of what is done right in this ambitious drama. Alas, through all of its noble moments, the final product succumbs to its flaws, and believe me, there's plenty of them to rob this film of decency, or at least keep the film running long enough for decency to sputter out.
The film is not quite as overlong as they say, but at exactly 160 minutes, this war drama leads you to believe that it is a good old-fashioned war epic, only to end up with a bit of minimalism to storytelling scope, but not at the expense of an epic length that it has to achieve through excess material and repetition, which leave certain layers to go too intensely focused upon for the eventual shifts in focus to not feel kind of inorganic, and give you plenty of time to think about the other areas in which this film's storytelling royally messes up, if you're still paying attention, that is. If nothing else is uneven about this film's narrative, it's the momentum of storytelling, which has its tight spots and excessive spots, but, after a while, really starts to meander and challenge your engagement value as it trots along a tainted path, or at least a path that is way too familiar for its own good. At this point, it's hard to pull off a genuinely unique war film, but this film, on paper, stands a really good chance of being relatively refreshing, and sure, there are aspects to this film that stand to be more formulaic, but on the whole, this film is conventional, maybe even generic, with writer James McBrie delivering on anything from trite dialogue to clichéd, superficially drawn characters who tend to feel to familiar to be seen as anything more than mere components to this film's familiar formula, regardless of some decent performances. There's only so much that's unusual about this generally been-there-done-that war drama, but honestly, if this film just has to be formulaic, then I'm all for there being even more genericism, because among some of your relatively less frequently practiced aspects of the military film genre is some glaring cheesiness that haunts this misguided drama, being found within such more minor areas in writing as dialogue and comic relief, - which are often grating in their corniness - as well as within questionable character and scenario moments which dilute the believability of this humanity-driven drama that is going to need convincingness if it aims to sustain your investment. The film gets to be mighty cornball, whether when it's being histrionic, or when it's being just downright silly, and ignoring the cheesiness that plagues this film's effectiveness was always going to be a difficult, perhaps even impossible task, yet you would have at least stood a chance of getting past McBrie's writing missteps if Spike Lee didn't constantly remind you of storytelling's shortcomings with something that he has always done about as well as anything: laughable subtlety problems. Come on, we're talking about an answer to those "sickeningly racist", or rather, historically accurate war films by Clint Eastwood - which didn't crowbar in black people in the middle of white WWII Marines' stories - that deals with black people trying to get along in a white man's military during the 1940s, so, of course, there is no drop subtlety to Lee's agenda for this film, but it's not like lapses in subtlety end with the thematic aspects of this overblown opus, as what action there is overemphasizes disturbing imagery in a gratuitous fashion that waters down the effectiveness of the violence more than it supplements it, while atmosphere goes overblown to an overbearing point by the shameless celebration of such aspects as Terence Blanchard's often good, but trite score, until, after a while, you find yourself exhausted by Lee's desperate attempts to summon some kind of resonance from this disjointed, corny and utterly unsubtle effort. I wasn't exactly entering this film expecting it to be one of those gems that earned heat from the critics for some frustratingly indiscernible reason, though, considering the potential and ambition to this project, I was kind of hoping for yet another Spike Lee joint - as Lee himself calls it - that bypasses its shortcomings enough to reward, or at least stands as not quite as messy as they say, and such hopes were certainly reinforced by a pretty strong, if still rather flawed beginning, yet once we come to the body of the final product, the lowlights - of which there are many - become, quite frankly, embarrassing, and it gets to be more and more difficult to deny them as the film meanders along, trailed by a wealth of amateur mistakes that are not so intense that you can't appreciate the undeniable strengths that come close to carrying the final product into genuine decency, - primarily on the back of entertainment value - but ultimately can't compensate for the problems enough to prevent the final product from collapsing, not simply short of potential or into underwhelmingness, but into mediocrity.
In the end, handsome moments in cinematography and thrilling moments in action grace the film with a technical sharpness that adds to engagement value almost as much as highlights in the telling of a conceptually worthy story, - anchored by some decent performances - which has enough entertaining liveliness to it for the final product to almost achieve decency, but not quite to where you can disregard the disjointed, repetitious and meandering dragging, genericism, silliness and embarrassing lack of subtlety that leave "Miracle at St. Anna" to slowly, but surely lose steam, until finally collapsing as a near-decent, but ultimately mediocre misfire of an overambitious mess.
2.25/5 - Mediocre