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Review: 'Defiance' solid but lacking

  • Story Highlights
  • Film tells the true story of the Bielski brothers, who fought back against Nazis in 1941
  • The brothers set up a camp in the woods and saved hundreds of fellow refugees
  • Remarkable story should have inspired more exciting, original film, Tom Charity says
  • Charity: "Defiance" heavy-handed, but there's something satisfyingly solid about it
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- The question of Jewish resistance to the Nazis -- or the lack of it -- has loomed large ever since the true extent of the horrors of the Holocaust became impossible to ignore.

Liev Schreiber, left, and Daniel Craig play Jewish resistance fighters in the World War II drama "Defiance."

Liev Schreiber, left, and Daniel Craig play Jewish resistance fighters in the World War II drama "Defiance."

As early as 1940 and 1942, Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch fashioned satiric fantasies in which Adolf Hitler was comically humiliated by Jews (a barber in Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" and a hammy actor in Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be").

More recently, Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski presented authentic stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors in "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist."

In "Defiance," Edward Zwick tells the true story of the Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell).

When the Germans and local collaborators started rounding up Jews in what was then Belorussia in 1941, murdering thousands -- including the Bielskis' parents -- the three men took refuge in the woods.

They evaded capture, scavenged, begged or stole the food they needed; they set up a camp and saved hundreds of fellow refugees -- and they fought back. Video Watch the stars of "Defiance" talk about the film »

It's a remarkable story, one that should have inspired a more exciting and original movie than this sluggish compendium of earnest debates and hackneyed battle scenes.

The timing is unfortunate. For a story that has gone neglected for the best part of 60 years, this is hardly the ideal week to be extolling heroic Jewish resistance fighters. Ari Folman's angst-laden nonfiction animated film, "Waltz With Bashir," is altogether more relevant.

Zwick's Hollywood liberal credentials are not in doubt, but his films have a surprisingly gung-ho undercurrent (they include such martial adventures as "The Last Samurai," "Glory," "The Siege," "Legends of the Fall" and "Courage Under Fire").

He may like a fight, but he's no great shakes when it comes to staging action. Besides, in a Zwick flick, words always speak louder.

In "Defiance" those words come with a thick, guttural European inflection (Hebrew is spoken as English, though characters also break into subtitled Russian and German on occasion). The speechifying is often clumsy and long-winded.

Take the backwoods intellectual who doesn't know how to handle a hammer but can sure nail a philosophical one-liner: "At least Descartes recognized the subjective nature of existence," he kvetches. Where's Lubitsch when you need him?

Dour and dourer as the movie goes on, Daniel Craig looks rugged in a weathered leather jacket and cloth cap, but his Bond associations aren't exactly helpful. You have to check yourself from wondering why he doesn't just take out that battalion of Nazis single-handedly.

Tuvia may be a reluctant hero, but he shoulders the burden of leadership and assumes responsibility for protecting his ever-increasing flock. Schreiber's Zus, on the other hand, joins with the Soviets to take the fight to the Germans. It takes him longer to learn who his true friends are.

The movie is full of mud and muck, yet somehow Zwick sanitizes the things that matter most. In the most challenging scene, just as Tuvia turns a blind eye as his enraged fellow Jews beat a German prisoner to death, Zwick consistently pulls back from anything that might be too unpleasant or tasteless.

His heroes remain fundamentally unsullied. Later Asael picks up Tuvia's mantle and leads his followers like a latter-day Moses, away from their enemies through an impenetrable swamp.


"Defiance" is a hard slog, at times. But even if it's heavy-handed and old-fashioned, there's also something satisfyingly solid about it. It's always comforting to know who the good guys are, even if they're stuck in a not-so-good picture.

"Defiance" is rated R and runs 137 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.

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