January 26, 2009

Defiance Review

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A few questions were bothering me as I prepared to watch Edward Zwick’s latest flick, Defiance, last week: (1) Can Daniel Craig’s sexy stubble and bulging pecs do for the Holocaust what they did for James Bond? (2) Is festering sexual tension — the meat and potatoes of any Hollywood blockbuster — really appropriate in a genocide film? And (3) do I get to see as many dead Germans as I did in Saving Private Ryan?
I’ll make like Amy Winehouse and say, “No, no, no.” No matter how big the muscles or deep the voice, there’s no actor around who can cast a romantic aura around the genocide of several million innocents (Don Cheadle not excepted) and there’s just something a little too icky about mass murder for the old action movie recipes to work — in other words, when it comes to gung-ho, testosterone-celebrating cinema, the Holocaust may not be the best setting. And as far as dead Germans, I’m pretty sure Tom Hanks racked up a bigger body count than Craig does in Defiance (there’s a reason they call it “movie magic”).
But whatever the relative strangeness of the movie’s genre-identity disorder, Craig puts in a good turn as the badass Tuvia Bielski, a Jewish partisan in Poland who protects hundreds of his compatriots from the guns of the Nazis. The film begins with Tuvia, a simple, inexplicably-toned country boy, hiding in the woods with his three brothers. Their parents have been massacred and ze Germans are all around, but Tuvia and his equally-jacked brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) soon find the gumption to set up a little forest camp providing food and shelter to dozens of fleeing Jews. In time, the camp grows larger and the masses come flocking, and by the middle of the film Tuvia has became leader of a regular little village. Other grim-faced manly men look out for Nazis at the forest’s edges and make occasional forays into civilization to grab supplies and keep up the bullets-to-seconds quota, and there are the usual oddly-serious moments of war movie sex (human naturet triumphs over circumstance, it seems).
The interesting thing about Defiance, as least with regard to its inclusion in the rapidly-expanding World War II action genre, is its relatively limited scope. Nearly all the action takes place in a little corner of the woods, and there are no exploding church steeples or panoramic vistas of devastation. This is a testament to Zwick’s power of restraint: the director, whose past credits include The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, is no stranger to budget-busting explosions and giant battle scenes. But in a film about a tiny pocket of resistance, the right choice is to keep the action simple and cut short the geographic wandering.
Of course, Defiance is no great departure from Hollywood hallmarks, either. The first moments of the movie are shot in a grainy, newsreel-like footage that practically shouts “setting the scene,” color seeping in slowly in a tired rehash of every other war-movie opening you’ve ever seen. Later, there is the obligatory sudden-hush, ears-ringing bomb scene, with Craig stumbling around starry-eyed amid the chaos as the contrast between sound and image is pushed down the viewer’s throat. Looks like somebody’s been taking notes from Spielberg.
Clearly, the allure of Defiance lies not in its relatively unoriginal action scenes or war-movie tropes. The real heart of the film is the conflict between Tuvia and Zus, who disagree fiercely over the path their resistance should take. Tuvia favors a quiet approach, building a community in the forest and toughing it out until the Nazis leave. Zus, a man of violence, leads a troop of men away from Tuvia’s camp and joins the Soviets, itching for a fight. From the very beginning, there are hints of tension between the two, and in time the battle of the bros becomes almost as serious as that against the Germans. Needless to say, there’s plenty of stare-downs and chest-pounding, with the eventual kiss-and-make-up scene just before the end.
But perhaps the most charming aspect of the film is the accents. Just as half the fun in Braveheart was hearing men shouting fiercely in Scottish brogue, so here the Slavic iciness of everyone’s speech adds a layer of distinction to the dialogue, with the audience eager to hear what will come out of Daniel Craig’s mouth next. This wouldn’t be the case without good acting, of course, and Craig’s just-short-of-comical intensity and Schrieber’s equally impressive aggressiveness fill in the gaps of the rather staid screenplay.
In the end, Defiance provides reasonable entertainment without ever really delving into the serious issues it touches upon. There’s no nuance to the good vs. evil storyline, and one doesn’t leave the theatre pondering much in the way of weighty themes. This is not a fault of the film per se, as Defiance never aims too high and never grows too big for its breeches. Still, in an era when evil-Germans films are a dime a dozen, there’s something to be said for transcending the mundane. Until that happens, we’ll have to be content with big muscles and funny accents.