Set in World War 2 and following the exploits of the Buffalo Soldiers, the nickname for the all-black 92nd Infantry, Miracle At St. Anna tells the story of a mystical statue head that is at once responsible for the murder of a German bank customer in 1983, and the preservation of said 92nd Infantry during the invasion of Axis Italy in 1944.
The film gets off to an intriguing start when a black postal worker fires a luger into the aforementioned German customer, resulting in his arrest and an investigation by a detective played by John Turturro and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young reporter looking for a break. Not long after news breaks of the circumstances surrounding this ex-Nazi’s death, the film flashes back to World War 2, where we find the mystical statue head traveling with the Buffalo Soldiers into battle.
As a war movie, Miracle At St. Anna unrealistic, relying on choreography and special effects that you’d expect in a film from the 1970’s. Certainly, in the post Saving Private Ryan era, this World War II-set movie by Spike Lee is ham-fisted and frustrating. Artillery barrages carry little realism or fury, the flow of battle is all wrong, and when Derek Luke slides up next to his compadre for a little chat on the battlefield, we can tell instantly that he’s an actor by how he levels his Thompson sub-machine gun at his talking partner. Good directing doesn’t miss things like that.
As an adventure-mystery, Miracle At St. Anna suffers from terrible pacing and a dearth of storytelling. Even an hour into the film, you’d be hard-pressed to say what the film is about. Sure, that marble head carried by one of the lead characters is kicking around (but where did it come from?), yet its mystical power is kept in the dark, except that it seems to protect the “Chocolate Giant” who carries it. The plot isn’t clearly delineated, nor is there any true motivation aside from the assumed “stay alive” MO common to all soldiers. Scenes take place almost accidentally, focusing too long on pointless, actionless exchanges, while any semblance of a story slips between the cracks.
It’s a shame, because after more than twenty years of film-making, we might expect Spike Lee to have mastered some basic principles of putting together a good flick. At this point, he’s demonstrated the opposite, missing little beats galore and rendering a 2nd-rate, clearly ignorant pseudo war pic. Also, the score is atrocious. Skip it.
P.S. – One aside, this is the film that did convince me that if director Christopher Nolan decides to reprise the Joker character for the sequel to The Dark Knight, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perhaps the only true choice to fill the role. Gordon-Levitt is Heath Ledger’s virtual twin, and since getting his “man look,” I believe he’s well capable of appearing the part. Now, if he can muster even 75% of Ledger’s performance in TDK, I would vote for JGL to reprise his 10 Things I Hate About You co-star’s swan song character.