Sometimes a movie doesn’t work because of the expectations game. If the flick is sold as one type of picture and you get another, disappointment is as inevitable as the end credits. Unfortunately, that’s the case with "Defiance".
Written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick and directed by Zwick, "Defiance" recounts the true story of the four Bielski brothers, who after the Germans invaded their homeland of Belorussia in 1941 not only resisted the invaders but also created a haven in the forest for Jews seeking to escape Nazi persecution.
An intriguing hook to be sure. Better still, the marketing for "Defiance" stressed its excitingly-staged action, as well as Daniel Craig’s craggy features, giving the impression that the film was to be a WW2 version of James Bond.
Unfortunately, "Defiance" turns out to be anything but, as it is more than two hours of draggy drama than a hotbed of exciting action.
(Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)
One major problem is that Daniel Craig’s leading character is too passive for an action movie. In fact, he’s too passive for any movie. Audiences prefer their protagonists to be proactive, but except for one scene early on when Craig goes after the murderers of his parents, he spends most of the movie’s running time hiding or escaping from the Nazis, not fighting them.
It’s Craig’s brother in the movie (played by Liev Schreiber) who is more the Bond man of action, as he leaves Craig behind to join a group of Russians actively battling the Nazis by attacking their patrols and installations. Unfortunately, Schreiber is a supporting character, not the lead.
Even worse, there simply isn’t enough action in the movie in the first place. Most of it is showcased in the trailer, leaving the rest of the movie for talky scenes about the pros and cons of violence and clichéd conflicts between wimpy intellectuals and salt-of-the-earth types being forced to work and live together in the forest.
The Jews hiding with the Bielskis do face hardships – shortages of food and medicine, as well as frostbite and hypothermia – but none of these obstacles creates much visual excitement, and thus often make the movie seem plodding.
The structure also proves to be dramatically repetitious, as Craig builds a camp for those under his protection in the forest, then moves that camp with everyone in it when the Nazis approach, then builds another camp for those under his protection somewhere deeper in the forest, then moves that camp with everyone in it when the Nazis approach once more. This creates a monotonous feel to say the least.
Even when the action does come, it can descend into cliché. Craig’s hearing is blown out when the Nazis bomb the camp, creating a surreal moment much too similar to the one on Omaha Beach with Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan".
There is a reason "Defiance" isn’t doing well at the box-office. Even if it’s true, a story still needs to be visually and dramatically compelling to keep us watching. Especially if it’s going to be marketed as an action film.
Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. A graduate of USC’s School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, story editor, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finishing up (finally!) his first novel.