Poor Ed Zwick; cursed by a forgettable fairy to specialise in mediocre movies. Think of Glory (a white-guilt theme tune waiting on a massacre), or Legends of the Fall (men’s grooming meets WWI), or The Last Samurai (Japanese Imperialism as self-help instruction). Here is a man who took the yuppie ideals of thirtysomething and made a career out of them. So war becomes the issue of the week; each conflict helping people make peace with themselves. His latest is called Defiance. It’s about Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis. Zwick appears to have made it for a buck fifty. Even the bullets look bored.
We start in Belorussia (also known as Belarus). No, I probably couldn’t find it on a map either. The Nazis are coming! Three brave Jewish brothers flee into the woods. There is a brainy brother (Daniel Craig), a belligerent brother (Liev Schreiber) and a baby brother (Jamie Bell). They build a camp. Other Jews come to them in search of refuge. The belligerent brother thinks they should slough off the refugees. The brainy brother thinks they should save them. Since this is a movie, they don’t get the option to be heartless bastards. So they build a bigger camp. And call it a collective! And it all gets a bit like Robin Hood, if Robin had built a kibbutz in Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham had been Hitler.
Daniel Craig does manage at least one shirt-off scene; which is impressive for any movie shot in Lithuania, not least one shot outdoors in Lithuania. His character is the usual James Bond-type; manly, cold-blooded, but still capable of tears. There’s a dead wife who gets a mention, but Craig still beds a younger woman before the war is over. He’s meant to be a conflicted leader, the mantle of leadership thrust upon him rather than desired. He’s got a Cain and Abel relationship with Liev Schreiber that the war is there to help him fix. He gets the best jacket, and a case of typhus (in case the Academy wasn’t sure who was the lead). Like most of Defiance, he’s credible, but you struggle to care what happens to him.
Liev Schreiber, maybe sensing Craig’s this-is-my-day-off-from-Bond demeanour on set, plays his Mittel-European thug like a flaming tambourine. Schreiber does well with bitter, alcohol-fuelled violence. He’s got that look, like a man enraged in a library; intellectual, pissed-off. You know his character resents book-smarts because he coulda had ’em. My favourite scene in this movie is when Schreiber accuses Russian partisans of anti-semitism. For maximum boo-hiss effect, Ed Zwick has the chief anti-semite playing an accordion as he’s accused (as if playing the accordion somehow makes him more anti-semitic). The look Schreiber gives this accordion-playing bastard is almost worth seeing Defiance for.
It all leads up to a big battle with the Nazis, but since Defiance was made for a buck fifty; that battle scarcely amounts to six extras and a tank. The production as a whole can’t escape a slightly cheap feel. Any movie that spends more than an hour in a forest is cash-strapped. Not that this stops Zwick trying to make an epic. It’s just that… two hours of actors stood around a campfire is dull, no matter who’s after them. Would it have hurt to have a little more happen?
There’s a good movie here somewhere, but Zwick has bled the life out of it. The man loves war movies. He must; he’s made so many of them. But greatness eludes him. It’s like every time he picks up a camera, the Hallmark Channel calls him, and a voice says: “Make a movie for Sunday scheduling.” Zwick’s version of Apocalypse Now would have made Kurtz’s camp into the Breakfast Club. He means well, but great movies need a bolder heart than his. If one person in a thousand is excited by Defiance it would be a miracle. This is the kind of movie your grandfather watches half of before falling asleep.