World War II inspired films seem to be making a comeback, with Valkyrie, the re-telling of a German Army plot to assassinate Hitler, was followed a week later by the Daniel Craig headlined Defiance. Now their home video releases will come in similar succession, merely weeks apart, with Defiance once again following the Tom Cruise film. The stories, while set during the same time period, however, are drastically different: while the Cruise film is well known by now, Defiance is a quieter film that got some promotion but not an excessive amount by any means and the Craig headlined tale of Jews surviving for years in the Belarus forest to avoid imprisonment by the Germans ultimately suffered from a weaker opening, although the film did manage to recoup its budget between domestic and international receipts. Unfortunately critics were less than kind to Defiance, with many feeling surprised by the films genuinely underwhelming sense of history, despite telling quite the amazing story.
Daniel Craig (James Bond: Quantum of Solace) stars as Tuvia Bielski, an ordinary citizen turned hero, in this action-packed epic of family, honor, vengeance and salvation. Defiance is a riveting adventure that showcases the extraordinary true story of the Bielski brothers, simple farmers –outnumbered and outgunned- who turned a group of war refugees into powerful freedom fighters. Tuvia, along with his unyielding brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), motivate hundreds of civilians to join their ranks against the Nazi regime. Their “Inspirational story”* is a true testament to the human spirit. *David Densby, The New Yorker
After coming off of Valkyrie, I didn’t know what to expect from yet another World War II era film, although with Craig in the lead I was certainly not about to turn it down. Immediately my reception to this film was warmer, as the actors switched in and out of English-accented dialogue and into full on…well, whatever their native language was, either German, Russian, Polish…whichever. Distracting still? Yes. There is always a bit of cheese to accented English, but I honestly prefer this to purely American sounding dialogue that we got from Valkyrie. Unlike Valykrie as well, Defiance kept the washed out look that most WWII-era films had, making this at least look and feel like it belonged in the setting it was placed in.
So was this film leagues better? No. In fact I still enjoyed Valkyrie more, as this film felt both uneven and unbelievable. I’ll get to the unbelievable part in a bit, but it was a truly uneven film—what starts out as a small group in the woods balloons and we seem to progress through the seasons with little idea of how much time is being passed. We progress from scene to scene with no clue as to where we’re going to end up and even though it is an entertaining ride for the most part, it does become unnecessarily slow at times.
Now for the unbelievable portions. There’s a scene where two of the Bielski brothers head to a prison and end up freeing hundreds of Jews—with relative ease. I mean was it really that easy to sneak in and get them all out? Sure, they show them avoiding the spotlight but…what the hell? There were no patrols to notice over a hundred people just escaping through a hole in the wall? I’ve no doubt that it happened, of course, since it obviously did, but it just felt like a rushed sequence. In addition the way the Bielski brothers eventually reunite in the end feels too “perfect”—again, no idea if this is really based on historical facts, but the timing of the brother is just a little too…punctual.
But, those are all things you have to accept with a film like this. I definitely wouldn’t say that it was a film that was a waste of time, but it amazed by how little the film really affected me. Usually I feel the impact and historical depth of these types of films rather quickly after the credits role, but as amazing as the story that the film tells is…it just recants it in such a way that it seems wholly unamazing. It’s hard to describe, but maybe it’s just because as rough as they had it in the woods with little food, clothing, shelter and whatnot…it just didn’t seem all that horrible. I know I got people yelling at me after reading that and I’m not denying that the things these people went through were nothing short of abysmal, but the film never really makes it seem all that dire. “We need antibiotics” will be shouted, and then they run out and get it with a few causalities (of no one we really know, so there’s not much drama there either).
Again, as dramatic of a story as it is, it’s never really painted as something that really was ever meant to sucker punch you with emotion. I got more emotional satisfaction from the extras on this set than I got from the film, which is strange considering Edward Zwick was in charge (who directed Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai, two films I really enjoyed) and he usually has no problem pulling a gripping story out with relative ease.
But, even with its downsides, Defiance is still a worthwhile film. The performances by Craig and even Live Schreiber (who, after Wolverine, I never wanted to see again) really amazed me with his performance here. Really, like Valkyrie, there isn’t a lot wrong with this film, it just that it doesn’t really do much with the absolutely amazing story that it attempts to tell. At the very least this one is worth a Rental, although it skates the edge of Recommended as well…but only barely.
Paramount has released Defiance in a single disc Elite Blu-ray case, with plain grey disc art and an insert denoting the importance of firmware updates. Menu is incredibly simple, with a single screen and only the smallest of popup menus to choose options. Not that it needs a lot, mind you, but the menu system for Tommy Boy was more original than this.
Video is an AVC encoded 1.78:1 encoded affair and it looks fantastic. Another modern film that looks wonderful on Blu-ray…shocker, right? Well it could have gone horribly awry with the film grain that’s left on the transfer and even the slightest bit of DNR could’ve caused a mess but this film really looks fantastic from start to finish. Cold and washed out at times, but what few colors that are here (mostly earthy browns, although some whites and blues pop up during the winter sequences) genuinely look fantastic. A solid transfer all around and one that certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The audio, however, does bore a bit. The TrueHD 5.1 mix really does all it can with the limited sound effects that the film sports and aside from some early thunderstorms and rain, there isn’t much that kicks the surrounds or LFE output at all. Only later in the film when gunfire starts to happen do we actually notice anything in the surrounds, although the final battle sequence is quite an entertaining bit of action…but it’s short lived.
Commentary by Director Edward Zwick
Return to the Forest (26:01, 1080i)
Children of the Otriad: The Families Speak (13:42, 1080i)
Scoring Defiance (7:00, 1080i)
Beilski Partisan Survivors (1:58, 1080i)
The commentary by Zwick is a nice addition, although it’s kind of hard to hear him justify the film when there’s little to really talk about—I mean it clocks in at over two hours and you certainly feel it at times. The other featurettes, however, are really where you’ll find most of the enjoyment as they profile the survivors and families of the survivors. We get to hear from the children and grandchildren of both the survivors as well as the Bielski’s. Although it’s kind of weird that you never hear about the youngest Bielski (Aron) – unless I just turned away when he popped up.
Overall it’s a rather small set of extras, but I found these more engaging than the film itself (Sorry, Zwick. Maybe next time…). The release is Recommended as the extras are definitely worth watching, although I doubt you’ll dive into them more than once so a Rental should suffice for this film.
Defiance arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on June 2nd.