The presence of the Daniel Craig as a badass Jew invites unflattering comparisons between Edward Zwick's Defiance and Steven Spielberg's Munich, another fact-based historical drama about a band of Jewish warriors battling the enemies of their people. But where Spielberg used Israel's quest to hunt down and kill the people responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre as a springboard to thoughtfully, trenchantly explore how the lust for revenge poisons and corrupts, Zwick uses the true story of Jewish outlaws who fought the Nazis in the forests of Poland largely as a vehicle for false uplift and a steady stream of big Oscar moments. Craig and his band of outlaws rob and kill in their war with the Nazis, but unlike the conflicted heroes of Munich, their hands never get dirty; they're protected from moral ambiguity by the righteousness of their cause.
Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and George McKay play the real-life Bielski brothers, Jewish partisans who took to the forest after their parents were murdered. The brothers formed the Bielski Partisans, an ad hoc military outfit dedicated to killing Nazis and collaborators and saving Jews. Standout Schreiber plays the hot-headed socialist bad boy of the Bielski brothers. (If the Partisans were The New Kids On The Block, he'd be its sneering Donnie Wahlberg.) Schreiber's leftist politics eventually lead him to split with older brother Craig and fight alongside the Russians.
Schreiber's relationship with the Russians typifies the film's squandered potential. There is rich, tragic irony to be mined from a proud Jew joining forces with an entity as famously anti-Semitic as emissaries from Stalin's Russia, but the film gives short shrift to this fascinating subplot and to the dark deeds the Bielski Partisans committed while serving a greater good. Defiance groans under the weight of its deadly earnestness: it's handsomely mounted yet strangely inert. There are lots of movies about Jews suffering, dying, and surviving in Europe during World War II, but precious few about Jews fighting back. So why does everything in Defiance feel so doggedly familiar?