): Spike Lee
's latest joint disappoints. It opens in the late 1980s with a literal bang, as aging bank teller Hector Negron (Laz Alonso
) puts a bullet in the chest of a random customer. The senior police officer on the scene (John Turturro
) points a cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt
) toward Negron's Harlem apartment, where clues to the man's identity only deepen the mystery behind the crime.
The murder serves as a gateway for Lee back to World War II, however, where Negron's complicated story establishes a link to his not-so-innocent victim. As a soldier serving in the Army's 92nd Infantry -- nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers -- Negron and his compatriots Stamps (Derek Luke
), Bishop (Michael Ealy
), and Train (Omar Benson Miller
) end up behind enemy lines in Tuscany, where they evade Nazi troops, protect an Italian village from attack, and babysit a doe-eyed boy (Matteo Sciabordi
) who speaks to the dead (and sounds like Roberto Benigni while doing so). Article continues below
There's a lot to process -- almost too much -- in James McBride's screenplay, which he adapts from his own novel. Yet even at a bloated 155 minutes, Lee's picture seems to aimlessly tread water during its middle section.
Despite noble intentions, Miracle at St. Anna is a poorly constructed film. Its foundation rests on shaky coincidences, not the least of which is the opening confrontation at the former Buffalo Soldier's window. (To explain would be to spoil, and that's not my job.)
The technical side of the equation is equally imbalanced. Lee's first attempt at combat sequences are decent, though the bookend battles come off as necessary evils so the characters can get to the real story Lee wants to tell. Luke and Ealy gel as dominant soldiers at odds, while Valentina Cervi sizzles as Renata, the village's communications bridge to the American troops. Benson's unfortunate portrayal of a simpleton ("You speak that eye-tal-yun?" he asks a colleague) simply grates the nerves, however. And long-time Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard composes an overbearing score that's better suited for a James Bond adventure.
Lee finds ways to address racism with most of his films, and St. Anna continues the tradition. He includes a lengthy flashback of the soldiers on leave staring down Southern bigots who don't want them sitting at an ice cream counter. It garners sympathy but doesn't advance the main story. Back on Italian soil, Stamps and his men are disgruntled for having to fight "a white man's war." Lee even suggests the Buffalo Soldiers faced a racial divide in their own division, as white commanders order improper military support or simply abandon the black soldiers behind enemy lines because they donít trust their intel.
Frustration over perceived inequality isn't a serious strike against Miracle, but the film's hokey mysticism is. Train's sidekick, young Angelo, is a pious caricature. Ancient Italian women read fortunes and retell the legend of the Sleeping Man to anyone who'll listen. The soldiers bog down in metaphysical discussions about man's worth in the eyes of God. The discussions contribute to that bloated second act, the one that goes nowhere.
Miracle at St. Anna tries on several hats -- war drama, history lesson, vengeance play, spiritual psalm, true-crime thriller -- but can't make one fit. It willingly enters into thought-provoking discussions on race, politics, combat, and religion. What's frustrating is the film's lack of answers, or even clear positions.