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)

In 1941 Germany, Brothers In Arms, With Only One Thing In Mind
By 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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