Defiance opened wide this weekend, and director Edward Zwick has to be shaking his head in disappointment. With the film officially released in 2008, Zwick - and the studio, Paramount Vantage - were clearly eyeing the movie - about the true story of a couple Belarussian brothers who decide to fight back against the Nazi's attempts to exterminate Jews - to be an awards contender. Critical reviews have been kind but not glowing, and Defiance was out of the race before it began. It's a shame, really, because Defiance is a pretty good movie.
The movie stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell as three brothers, who, after their parents are murdered, take to the woods to avoid being killed themselves. Over time, they come across more and more Jewish refugees who have fled the Nazis, and decide to protect them. But whereas Tuvia (Craig) is more interested in keeping people alive, Zus (Schreiber) wants to take a more active approach and join up with Russian forces. Between brotherly quarrels and the prospects of a harsh weather, the Bielskis struggle to keep people alive and out of Nazi hands.
Zwick, who directed Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai and Glory, is well-suited for the job, as he is best when doing action-dramas such as Defiance. The movie is entertaining, exciting and relatively powerful, and Zwick brings a glossy grittiness to the story. Those looking for a good, modern-day Nazi picture should look no further than Defiance.
At the same time, Zwick's directorial style is what keeps his movies from attaining glory. As with his other films, he is very good at implementing action-dramas, but never quite reaches the synergistic levels where the action and drama complement one another. Zwick develops great and believable action sequences and is able to provide suitable drama to go along with those scenes, but his movies - including Defiance - don't shift seamlessly between the two genres. Zwick repeatedly appears more comfortable when doing action than drama; at times, Defiance feels overly long when something exciting isn't happening, if only just a little.
Nevertheless, Defiance is an engaging, relatively strong film with some quality war sequences, good acting and a unique story. Hollywood seems to have shifted its attention from all out warfare to the lesser known stories that took place away from the front lines, as seen here and in Valkyrie. The story is excellent and one of the most inspiring in recent memory.
Craig, who looks especially rugged when caked in dirt as he is throughout much of the picture, delivers his best performance since Road to Perdition, though I think he'll find his greatest chops when he doing something away from the action genre. Schreiber, who has been around for years but who in my mind is still that guy from the Scream movies, continues to show that he has leading potential given the chance. Bell is fine, though he didn't blow me away.
This has been a disjointed review, in part due to my inability to explain how Defiance is a very good film and Zwick is a very good director, yet there's something in Zwick's approach that keep his movies from working perfectly. Defiance is well-made and intriguing, and other than needing a few minutes cut from its running time is one of the better movies of 2008. Still, there's something about it that doesn't elevate it to that upper echelon of war films.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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