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Predictably fine

‘Defiance’ is dependable, unchallenging cinema.

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'DEFIANCE'. Starring Daniel Craig.
  • 'DEFIANCE'. Starring Daniel Craig.

Based on the story of the heroic Bielski partisans, Edward Zwick's latest historical drama comes across like “Saving Private Ryan” by way of Merchant-Ivory productions. In other words? Oscar bait. It won't get a bite this year, but the movie is exactly the kind of dependable, unchallenging and just-OK cinema that would be a contender in a weak year for mainstream film. If you have nothing better to do, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

In many ways, Zwick seems the most likely successor to those two middlebrow collaborators, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, capable of producing sturdy and accessible period pieces without ever taking much of a chance. Indeed, his directorial mission seems to be largely about staying within the lines, never straying very far from the well-worn path.

In this dramatization of a Jewish resistance group in Poland led by the Bielski brothers, Zwick has his compelling story. He has his landscape. He has his recognizable antagonist. He has his easily identifiable heroes. And we have our evening's entertainment.

Per the requirements for any Oscar-worthy contender, the cast is top shelf. Unfortunately, mastering an Eastern-European accent is about all they are asked to do. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell — fine actors all — play the oldest of the Bielski brothers, but their resources go untapped. Craig's face remains a mask against uncertainty for the whole of the film, his ice blue eyes occasionally peaking out from the facade. As the younger brother, Jamie Bell grows from bashful adolescent to inspiring leader abruptly before the final curtain falls. Liev Schreiber enacts a change that relies entirely on his surprise at Russian anti-Semitism.

Zwick generally glosses the unseemly aspects of survival: the ruthless killings of locals who may or may not be collaborating with the Nazis, the necessity of killing all prisoners to maintain the secrecy of their location. The Bielski brothers quickly discard a war of attrition for a war of survival, but less because of any moral stance regarding vengeance than a basic inability to fight the forces aligned against them.

Despite my resistance (this is a harrowing true story, after all), the partisans' retreat into the woods continually brought to mind Kevin Costner's “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Zwick is a better filmmaker, and this is a serious movie, but the dramatic instincts at work here are of a piece with that easy pap. In previous films, specifically “Blood Diamond” and “The Last Samurai,” he hit the same notes and trod the same path. In fact, the evenness of his productions seems entirely calculated. These formulas may announce themselves to the audience, but they work. In a more unassuming way, he's doing what Martin Scorsese has been attempting to do over the latter half of his career: find and tell what seem like quintessentially American stories (the Bielski brothers finally immigrate to America and start a successful trucking company), the kind of stories that classic Hollywood told.

And like earlier and better American directors, notably John Ford, Zwick luxuriates in ceremony. You can smell the requisite marriage sequence, intercut with a bloody battle, approaching from a mile away. Unlike those masters, Zwick's movies themselves feel ceremonious: ritualistic, mechanical and entirely predictable. That doesn't mean they aren't worth going through again and again.

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