Daniel Craig (left) as Tuvia Bielski and
Liev Schrieber as Zus Bielksi in the true-story war drama "Defiance", directed
by Edward Zwick". (Photo: Paramount Vantage)
THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"Defiance"
In 1941 Germany, Brothers In Arms, With
Only One Thing In Mind
Omar P.L. Moore/January 23, 2009
Edward Zwick doesn't always direct "Defiance" in a smooth and straightforward
fashion but he does get the message across powerfully in this inspired-by-a-true
story film about the Bielsky brothers whose entire family was killed by the
Nazis during World War Two in Europe. These two Jewish brothers are at war
with each other as well as they are thirsting for blood revenge, and as played
by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber lend great physical presence to a drama that
rarely stops moving. "Defiance" is the example of a locomotive that
continues to gather steam even when against all odds, the journey should have
ended. The film is shot very tightly and its pace rather urgent and
claustrophobic. It is both absorbing and engaging enough so as to be
difficult to pull yourself from, though not bold enough to resist some of the
trademark cliches that adorn for better or worse, epic dramas like these.
Epic perhaps may be a misnomer for "Defiance" but one thing isn't: its ability
to rivet us to our seats. Mr. Zwick manages to capture a drama of
complexity and fearlessness at the same time, while not overplaying his hand at
storytelling. The film is structured first and foremost as a war action
drama, second as a moral crisis and dilemma thought-provoker and last as a love
story, a story which could have been dispensed with or at least developed
earlier in the film. After the intensity of Mr. Craig (who plays eldest
brother Tuvia) and Mr. Schreiber (who plays Zus), a little breathing room is
required, hence the love story featuring Alexa Davalos as Lilka. What
Tuvia and Lilka have together is special, though not compelling enough for
viewers. "Defiance" loses a little steam when one or both of the two
acting powerhouses vacate the screen, but into the breach steps Jamie Bell, who
plays Asael, the youngest of the three brothers who will end up being busier in
this tale of revenge than he ought to be.
Mr. Zwick in his war dramas ("Glory, "The Last Samurai" and now "Defiance")
duplicates one or two specific scenes from one film and puts the scene in the
other films. For example, there's a scene here where the Jewish citizenry
are being trained to fire guns. It contains the same framing of the camera
and likeness to the exact same scene where Matthew Broderick teaches a 54th
Massachusetts soldier to fire his weapon and quickly. There is a virtual
repeat of this scene where Tom Cruise's Nathan Algren is teaching the Japanese
recruits to become better marksmen. I'm not quite sure why this specific
repetition occurs, although every filmmaker has a trademark shot or visual
signature that they use.
Be that as it may, "Defiance" is never short on energy or ambition. Mr.
Bell is particularly good in his role particularly in the final third of the
film, as is Mr. Craig, who is remarkably adept at confining his characters to
small moments even as chaos is rife around him. Whether as James Bond or
as Tuvia or in Steven Spielberg's "Munich", Mr. Craig never allows his
portrayals to be underwhelmed by anything, making him a completely defiant
persona in his own right as an actor. Perhaps that's why the casting of
the British actor was so appropriate for this film. Mr. Craig quite
literally delivers one of the best performances of his career, a throwback to
the performances of legends in old-fashioned 1950's and '60's films depicting
war in Europe. There's nothing cartoonish about the events depicted by Mr.
Zwick and no mockeries of history occur in a film that doesn't try to harness
too much sentiment for its audience's sake.
"Defiance" has its revenge on the real life events it depicts. It is
definitely a dish that is best served cold.
"Defiance", which expanded across North America last week, is now playing.
The film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence
and language. The film's duration is two hours and nine minutes.
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