Jewish-superhero movies may be thin on the ground, but that’s no reason to welcome Defiance as anything other than an old-fashioned adventure yarn hobbled by its own sense of religious significance. This fact-based story of the swashbuckling Bielski brothers—smugglers and skirt-chasers and no strangers to firearms—could have been a rousing project had director Edward Zwick worried less about sanctifying his ancestors and more about entertaining his audience.
As we learn from a lengthy piece by Zwick in the Christmas Eve edition of The New York Times, the Bielskis were distant relatives who, from 1941-43, sheltered more than a thousand Jews from the Nazis in the forests of Belarus. “Directing a film inevitably becomes personal for me,” says Zwick, illuminating at least part of the problem. “This one, though, felt as if some private boundary were breached.” The goal of commemoration may be understandable, but it rarely plays well with others, and here it strangles every attempt by star or script to stray from legend polishing. So when Morally Conflicted Brother Tuvia (a goyish Daniel Craig) kills a rebellious Jew who’s trying to overthrow his leadership, or allows his flock to vent its rage on a sacrificial German soldier, God forbid he should be allowed a flicker of satisfaction. Instead, he’s so tortured that he does everything except gnaw off his knuckles.