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Thursday, December 04, 2008


Defiance: The ModFab Review

Paramount Vantage (137 Minutes)
Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Mark Feuerstein, Allan Corduner, Jodhi May and Mia Wasikowska
Written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick
Directed by Edward Zwick

Is Defiance the first action blockbuster about the Holocaust? Maybe...even against the backdrop of the Second World War, I can't recall many films with a guns-and-bombs body count higher than this true-life tale of Jewish rebels who battled Germans from their hiding place inside a dense forest. As brought to bracing life by Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), this portrait of the Bielski brothers, and the hundreds of lives they saved from certain death, pitches and rolls erratically, looking desperately for a way to balance biography and action. If you can imagine Oskar Schindler as John McClane, this might just be the movie for you.

Zwick never makes a movie without a heavy moral underpinning, and Defiance is no exception. Here, the endlessly restated question (underlined in almost every scene) is: what is the appropriate response to barbarism...an eye-for-an-eye retaliation, or a better-than-thou nonviolent pacifism? Is survival an active or passive act? The question creates an ideological crater between two of the Bielskis, leader Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and brother Zus (Liev Schreiber), who navigate the woods, the Germans, and the heavy themes with all the understatement of Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive. War is hell, of course...but rarely has it been writ so large, or with so many bullets.

Taken on its own terms, Defiance can be mildly enjoyable both as a document of reclaimed history and as a bullets-and-brio entertainment...a dubious double claim, but there you have it. Like Zwick's own Last Samurai, Defiance takes a historical moment and drapes it in saturated colors, contemporary rhythms, and a picture-postcard natural environment. A magnetic leading man forms the lynchpin of the moral dilemma, a task for which Craig is more than up to the task. Don't be surprised, however, if your mind drifts a bit over the refugees' four-year stay in the forest; there's only so many tentative love affairs, hungry winters, philosophic discussions, and attack sequences a movie can take, and in Defiance there often seems to be a few too many. Being reminded of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with their woodsy village of exiles and rebellious attitudes, is not a good thing for a movie with serious concerns.

I don't mean to imply that Defiance is a bad movie...rather, that there's a disconnect between its dramatically powerful plot and its popcorn-friendly storytelling. The annihilation of the Jewish people is a tragedy that needs repeated telling, and finding new artistic ways to remember the genocide is a laudable goal. But the guns-ablazing Defiance undercuts its own dramatic concerns; alternating a heavy-handed moralism with the style of contemporary action franchises, it ends up dulling the horrors and smoothing out the horrifying edges of murder. Despite the film's worthwhile attributes, it ends up working against itself. I doubt that is what Defiance was really intended to do.
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Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

ModFab, Curious to know how Jamie Bell (a/k/a the film Billy Elliot) was.

12/4/08, 1:50 PM  

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