‘Defiance’ strikes out with the trades

Posted by · 6:27 pm · November 11th, 2008

Ed Zwick may just be one of those directors who will never be in critics’ good graces: a fine technical craftsman and a no-nonsense storyteller, even his best films remain as resolutely unfashionable in execution as they are noble in intention. Nothing wrong with that, of course — I’m no real fan, but films like “Legends of the Fall,” “The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond” entertained a lot of moviegoers, even as critics offered a collective shrug.

Now, early reviews suggest that “Defiance” will continue that pattern. Though Kris had positive words for the film, the trade papers are significantly harsher, tossing out phrases like “dramatically flat” and “an overall lack of creative spark.”

Todd McCarthy’s review praises the performances (particularly Liev Schreiber’s) and tech contributions, but overall, he is left unmoved:

A potentially exceptional story is told in a flatly unexceptional manner… Zwick’s version of the grim but inspirational events becomes more conventional as it goes, topped by a climax straight out of countless war pics and Westerns.

It all becomes pretty standard-issue stuff, filled with noble and tragic heroism, familiar battle images and last-second rescues. None of the suffering, sacrifices, anxieties or tests of heart and soul are rendered with any special dimension or heightened force, nor depicted with anything near the staggering, hallucinatory impact of the two great Russian films to have depicted events in wartime Belorussia, Larisa Shepitko’s 1977 “The Ascent” and her husband Elem Klimov’s 1985 “Come and See.”

Kirk Honeycutt’s take is perhaps moderately more charitable, but the sentiments are similar:

(While it) certainly is a story that needed to be told, one wishes it could have been told more dynamically… Although Zwick and co-writer Clay Frohman have tailored a thoughtful script that covers all the inherent theological and philosophical angles and archetypes (making it an ideal “bearing witness” companion piece to Zwick’s “Glory”), the production cries out for a more compelling approach given its limited exteriors.

Finally, Tim Grierson for Screen Daily completes the trio of “meh” verdicts, and is less forgiving of the performances and tech credits than the other two:

In trying to add a new chapter to the long history of films made about the Holocaust, “Defiance” can barely move a dramatic muscle without bumping into another, better movie that covers some of the same ground… Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber have a tough time with the material, not helped by the fact that Craig’s naturally brooding magnetism clashes with the reserve of his indecisive character, while Schreiber is too cerebral a performer to portray a one-dimensional bear of a man who rarely thinks before acting.

Zwick’s films have a reputation for impressive spectacle that can overwhelm their earnest, slightly cornball narratives, but Defiance is so sober-minded that even its few action sequences fail to add much excitement to the proceedings.

I’m not really surprised by this: fairly or not, the trailer didn’t build much buzz, and the film’s schedule bump into January wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence either. I still hope to enjoy the film in the way that Kris did, but I think we can safely remove “Defiance” from Oscar consideration — except, of course, in the technical categories where Zwick’s films tend to score. (Simply going on hearsay, I’d guess James Newton Howard’s score looks like its best bet.) It was ever thus.

→ 10 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

10 responses so far

  • 1 11-11-2008 at 6:37 pm

    Mantas said...

    As expected really…

  • 2 11-11-2008 at 7:00 pm

    Casey said...

    i dont think we can rule out schreiber and bell quite yet. zwick also has the habit of getting attention for his supporting players.

    ’89: Glory- Denzel won
    ’03: Last Samurai- Watanabe nom
    ’06: Blood Diamond- Hounsou nom

  • 3 11-11-2008 at 11:10 pm

    Leone said...

    So what if the trades didn’t like this movie? Critics have never been particularly kind to Edward Zwick but his movies make a lot of money. And this movie is about the holocaust and will be of interest to Academy members and audiences love his movies as evidenced by his box office history. This film seems to me to the kind of male-audience fare that will play well with older male Academy members. And are those voters reading every lame review that comes out? Variety just wrote that the weak link in “doubt” is Meryl Streep. Honestly — they’re only trade reviews. I’ll be more interested in magazine and newspaper reviews….. but think the film will do well anyway.

  • 4 11-12-2008 at 3:54 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I´m downloading JNH´s score right now. I´ll comment on that later.
    As for the movie: I told ya!

  • 5 11-12-2008 at 5:54 am

    John said...

    You know, I have to say something. I, somehow, saw ‘Last Samurai’ and ‘Blood Diamond’ without reading any critiques of them (beforehand).

    I thought those 2 movies were incredible. And I was so sad to eventually read the mediocre reviews those films got.

    ‘Glory’ is just superb. ‘Legends of the Fall’, ehh, not one of my faves, but I still appreciate it.

    I don’t know what it is about Zwick films that BOTH “get” to me … but “don’t” jive with the critics.

    Do I understand terms live non-auteur, and non-groundbreaking narrative? Of course I do. But that doesn’t mean (to me) that a movie will still be bad, or only average, or good, and not excellent.

  • 6 11-12-2008 at 6:13 am

    nick said...

    Courage Under Fire is vastly underrated. Maybe Zwick’s best. Well, Glory is pretty fucking good, too.

  • 7 11-12-2008 at 8:20 am

    Diego said...

    i also think that Blood diamond and Last samurai were very good films…And Defiance is going to be incredible!!!

  • 8 11-12-2008 at 9:28 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Blood Diamond had the worst screenplay. Great music, and perfs though, but the story killed the film.

  • 9 11-12-2008 at 12:36 pm

    Andrew said...

    The Last Samurai is a pretty good film with a horribly botched ending. I still can’t believe that anyone would write, “They all run up the hill to certain death, and every single person, EXCEPT THE MAIN CHARACTER, is shot to death,” and somehow think that’s a good idea.

  • 10 11-12-2008 at 4:22 pm

    Matthew said...

    The thing I don’t like about Zwick’s movies is they always feel so stilted. So flat. And no I’m not just quoting from the reviews. There’s often no soul, I find, to his movies. That sounds so flaky.