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Friday, July 13, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Rescue Dawn" mixes art, action in the war zone

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Rescue Dawn," with Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies. Written and directed by Werner Herzog.

126 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture.

The closest thing to a Hollywood film that wildman German filmmaker Werner Herzog's ever likely to make is "Rescue Dawn," a fact-based Vietnam War tale of a harrowing escape from a POW camp by Dieter Dengler, an American (though German-born) soldier. Herzog has told this story before, in Dengler's own words, in the 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Now he has a larger canvas, and the result is an odd but vivid and compelling mixture of big-movie showmanship and eccentric vision.

A lean, fast-talking Christian Bale stars as the cocky aviator, whose plane is shot down over Laos in the film's early scenes. He's wide-eyed and sure of himself, and before the crash we watch his plane soar like a bird, floating in the clouds. Soon, he becomes a different kind of animal: Captured in a village, he's tethered to posts in the dry ground. A child, curious, dangles a bug before Dieter's face — the soaring hero is now a figure of mockery.

After Dieter is transported to a hellish POW camp (upon seeing the shackles used to confine the prisoners, he asks, "What the hell is this, the Middle Ages?"), the film's middle section becomes a study in isolation. Dieter is befriended by the fragile Duane (Steve Zahn), who warns him that survival comes only from keeping your head down and your mouth shut. Eugene (Jeremy Davies, so emaciated he barely casts a shadow) serves as a cautionary tale; the confinement has driven him to madness. The men talk of the food they long for as the days drag on. But Dieter needs to fly: With Duane, he plots a breakout, and their escape makes for the film's thrilling final third.

Zahn, usually cast as a comedic sidekick, does remarkable work here; we can practically see the painfully malnourished Duane fading away as we watch. As he weakens, Dieter seems to become stronger: Bale's eyes harden like dark ice. The jungle, as in previous Herzog outings ("Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo," or even the remote Alaskan landscape in his recent documentary "Grizzly Man") becomes a character; the relentlessly lush green an enemy. Through it all, Klaus Badelt's haunting score underscores the drama; at times so lovely, it's almost war as opera.

The very conventional ending, indistinguishable in its mood from many a similarly-themed Hollywood offering, undercuts the film's power a bit. "Rescue Dawn," for most of its running time, is adventure as art, and as such it succeeds on Herzog's own unusual terms.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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