By Justin Damm
Director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall, Glory) takes another stab at drama, romance, action and a story that yearns, no, demands to be told with his latest, Defiance.
Based on the true story of three brothers who helped more than 1,000 Jews escape Nazi persecution in the woods of Belorussia, Defiance is a bit too portioned out, overcooked and bloodless, especially for a movie that features quite a bit of blood.
It begins with grainy black-and-white footage of the massacre of a Jewish village by soldiers. Brothers Zus (Liev Shrieber) and Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) return from hunting to find their village in ruins. Naturally, they flee into the woods and soon, eldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig) shows up. It’s revealed that Zus and Tuvia are rough and tumble farmers/vodka smugglers, much like Beau and Luke Duke really, but with a couple of younger brothers and no uncle…oh, and they have to survive the Holocaust. Soon the brothers find themselves taking care of an ever-expanding group of Jews looking for safety in the woods.
As Tuvia’s fame spreads, providing for everyone becomes more of an organizational and strategical challenge. Tuvia’s ideals clash with Zus’ hot head, and a bit of jealousy leads Zus to join a Russian platoon. Without Zus around, the focus is on Tuvia’s fretful quest to get everyone in the camp to survive the disease, starvation and possible mutiny that plague the forest camp, although the audience knows that all of these will be overcome. On the plus side, Craig puts on a real show of coughing and worried/pained expressions. The tale of survival climaxes in an action packed run and gun to escape German forces invading the forest.
Defiance suffers because it tries too hard. It wants to be a prestige film and does touch on quite a few topics—the lack of defiance on the part of the Belorussians that stems as much from latent anti-Semitism as from fear; the difference between city Jews and country Jews; and the failure of the Russian Party to address racism—but simply checks them off its list.
We do get some pretty awesome scenes of Shrieber as he swaggers around with, and occasionally uses the crap out of, a machine gun. Shrieber does a great job as a physically imposing, though somewhat tender, badass.
The action is relentless and looks a lot like the recent Rambo (although less gore-obsessed and with more belts over jackets). Where there could be a five-minute conversation that excoriates the inhumanity of the Nazis, there is a pithy exchange and, where there could be an awesome training or construction montage, there’s an evocative Moses reference. Defiance would be infuriating if it were more inspiring.
Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec
With Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell
Regal Stadium 14
137 min., R