[Screen It]

(2008) (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber) (R)

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Drama: A quartet of brothers tries to save themselves as well as a growing number of Jewish refugees who join them hiding in the Belorussian woods from the Nazis during WWII.
For the Bielski brothers -- Tuvia (DANIEL CRAIG), Zus (LIEV SCHREIBER), Asael (JAMIE BELL) and Aron (GEORGE MacKAY) -- the woods of their Belorussian homeland have always offered them protection from those after them. Their experience hiding there comes to good use when the Nazis and their sympathizers and helpers, such as a local police officer, start rounding up and killing Jews, including the brothers' father and others on their farm.

While Zus would rather their rebel contingent simply consist of just them, Tuvia knows they must help others, and soon they're joined by a growing number of refugees, such as older school teacher Shimon (ALLAN CORDUNER) and intellectual Isaac (MARK FEURSTEIN), who help them build a settlement in the woods.

With time passing and their wives dead, Zus develops an interest in Bella (IBEN HJEJLE) and Tuvia does the same with Lilka (ALEXA DAVALOS), while young bachelor Asael finds himself falling for Chaya (MIA WASIKOWSKA). Yet, Tuvia must also contend with challenges to his unofficial leadership of the settlement, not only from the likes of Arkady (SAM SPRUELL), a hunter who starts to get power hungry, but also Zus who thinks they should be off killing Nazis and their associates rather than hiding from them.

Accordingly, he ends up going off with Russian officer Viktor Panchenko (RAVIL ISYANOV) his right-hand man, Gramov (ROLANDAS BORAVSKIS), and other guerilla fighters. As the months wear on and a bitter winter sets in, and facing repeated encounters with German forces, Tuvia does what he can to keep order in the settlement, food in the refugees' bellies, and hope in their hearts that they will survive and prevail.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
With a father involved in WWII, I grew up immersed in related material, from toys to historical perspectives and, of course, movies. As a young kid, however, I didn't grasp all of the intricacies of the latter, and simply viewed them as action pictures where, for the most part, the good guys (in this case, the Americans) always prevailed due to their military might, courage and heroism.

While there weren't many movies about the Holocaust back then and nothing taught about it before the high school years, I never understood -- as that young boy -- why the millions of murdered Jews and other victims simply didn't fight back, particularly with the strength in numbers principle on their side.

Lo and behold, it turns out some of them did in the form of The Bielski partisans who fought the Nazi and their collaborators in Belorussia. Their tale, or at least the artistic interpretation of it, now arrives on the big screen as "Defiance," an interesting if not always consistently engaging WWII dramatic pic.

Adapted from Nechama Tec's "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans" by writer/director Edward Zwick and co-writer Clay Frohman, the movie could be seen as something of a companion piece to Zwick's other war movies, "Glory" and "The Last Samurai." All three depict the impact of battle on men's resolve, but at least this time the story is told by those inherently involved rather than outsiders who arrive to fight with the home team, if you will.

It's also akin to Spielberg's "Schindler's List" in that the film's hero -- played by the intense and solemn Daniel Craig -- ends up saving many more people from the Nazis than originally intended. Of course, it initially doesn't appear as if it's going down the route, what with Craig's Tuvia Bielski enacting revenge with -- as quoted in "Apocalypse Now" extreme prejudice -- on the corrupt officer responsible for his family's murders.

After that, however, he and one of his siblings (played by Jamie Bell) propose they simply hide in the woods and simply try to survive, a tactic that doesn't sit well with their other brother played by Liev Schreiber. He'd rather take the fight to the bad guys and their accomplices, thus setting the stage for conflict both within and outside their forest camp. Throw in some romantic subplots, the dealings of a mini-society (think a grown-up variation on "The Lord of the Flies"), questionable Soviet allies and, of course, various battle scenes, and the stage would seem set for a riveting cinematic experience.

It is just that, but only in fits and starts, as Zwick and company never manage to grab the viewer and fully immerse and engage them in the experience as completely as occurred -- gasp -- twenty years ago now with his Civil War epic. That said, various individual scenes do hit the mark, and genre conventions and clichés thankfully never are slathered on too thickly.

Yet, despite the good performances from the leads and various supporting performers, and the amazing true life tale behind all of it, the overall experience simply didn't leap off the screen and grab me, be that by the mind, heart or subconscious gut reaction, as strongly as I thought it could and should have.

Good but not great, the film proves at least one thing -- that stories continue to surface from significant events long after the fact and, one would think, everything about them would have already been told. As a result, "Defiance" might end up altering one's perceptions of how said history played out. It's just too bad it's not a more consistently engaging experience. The film rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 14, 2008 / Posted January 16, 2009

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