Seeing the preview for this movie, and considering Hollywood's current penchant for World War II dramas, I initially thought this one might be a heavy contender. In another year, it might have been. There's plenty going for it, the casting, the story, the production value, and director Ed Zwick (Blood Diamond) but there is one major hurtle Defiance needed to clear, but didn't: Formula. Zwick is a more than capable director, and he doesn't really fail here, he just doesn't surprise. While the story of Defiance is nothing short of amazing, perhaps even miraculous, somehow this turned into a paint-by-numbers character development film.
Defiance is the story of 4 Jewish brothers in 1941 Belarus who attempt to escape the SS by fleeing to the woods. Former smugglers, the Bielski brothers are familiar with these woods, at least familar enough to survive. With the help of people in the surrounding villages, the Bielskis gather not only supplies, but also other Jews in their position, eventually forming their own community in the forest. Their tale of survival and fight is compelling and the end is harrowing and suspenseful. It's what happens in between where the drama drags a bit.
I give Zwick and Co. credit for not painting the Bielskis as typical knight-on-white-horse heroes, at least not in the beginning. They're complex and real, but it's too bad that their dialogue doesn't always match. There are the typical montage building and training scenes. There are inspirational monologues (where unfortunately the white horse does make an appearance) but as the story goes on, it seems as if the complexity fades and the brothers become archetypes. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell play the 3 oldest Bielskis (Tuvia, Zus and Asael respectively) but their talents feel slightly underplayed. It's almost as if they were trying too hard to make you forget that Craig is the new Bond. However, I do think Schreiber, with the flashier role is indeed the standout here. I kind of wish there was more time spent on his character in fact.
But even with these technical issues the power of the story is never fully diminished. Definitely worth a viewing, if only to remind us all of the power of humanity.
3.5 out of 5