To paraphrase Indiana Jones: "Nazis. I'm sick of those guys." Maybe it helps if you haven't seen "Valkyrie," "The Reader," "The Boy in Striped Pajamas" or any other recent World War II drama, for that matter. But the resistance drama "Defiance" just doesn't seem to have anything to add to the swastika overload currently clogging the nation's theaters. We are about to cross the threshold from "Never again" to "Enough, already."
In "Defiance," Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, a real but little-known freedom fighter. Tuvia and brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) were gunslinging Jewish smugglers before the war. In 1941, with Polish police slaughtering Jews (including their parents), the Bielskis turned their sights on the collaborators, and then the Nazis.
Between guerrilla raids, they holed up in the Belarussian woods, establishing a makeshift camp that was soon inundated with Jewish refugees from neighboring towns. The outlaw brothers found themselves in the unlikely position of community leaders, protecting urban sophisticates who had looked down on them in times of peace.
It's a great premise, all the better for being true. Amazingly, this remarkable chapter of World War II history hasn't been dramatized before. But in the heavy hands of director Edward Zwick, the story is hokey, bloated and dull. Zwick has loused up action-packed historical dramas before. In fact, he's made a career of it -- "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond," most recently. He's fatally fixated on Teaching Us Important Lessons, turning adventure films into homework.
Suffering, sacrifice, soulful faces -- we've seen it all 47 times before. Zwick does the thick-witted screenplay no favors, cutting to a close-up at each and every emotional peak. Not trusting viewers to grasp the horror of war on our own, he pushes tear-stained faces at us just in case.
The film, a glacially paced 135 minutes, leads us through a year at the camp, as malnutrition threatens, romances emerge, and divisions endanger the group's solidarity. When the brutal winter and the advancing Germans approach, the idealist and the man of action must join forces to save the refugees. Bet you didn't see that coming.
Let's give it this: The major parts are well portrayed, in spite of almost unplayable dialogue. Craig, playing the idealistic eldest Bielski, declares, "Our revenge is to live," and works to keep his ragtag forest community safely hidden. Tuvia is called on to suffer deprivation stoically, brood and toss off idealistic sound bites that would have gotten him pelted with stones in real life. "We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals," you say? Take that, you pompous blowhard. But somehow, Craig retains his dignity.
Schreiber's fierce Zus is a more engaging part. He wants kill-'em-all vengeance, not mere survival. He rebels, joining the Red Army to battle the German invaders. The Soviets have their own brand of anti-Semitism, but at least he gets to shoot Nazis. Beyond the physicality of the role, we never gain much insight into this roughneck. Zus and Tuvia are temperamental opposites and they come to blows more than once, but we are left to guess why the animosity runs so deep between them.
The film draws parallels between Tuvia Bielski's heroism and the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom. But it will be the audience that's eyeing the exit signs and planning their own exodus.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186