MOVIE REVIEW- More holocaust: <i>Defiance </i>can't match <i>Reader</i>

a still from this week's filmIt wouldn't be Award Season without a Holocaust-related movie or two– or, this year, four or five. Defiance, which is better than Valkyrie but not as good as The Reader, has the most direct involvement with the extermination of Jews. With one eye on history and the other on the boxoffice, it's like Schindler's List meets Rambo.

In this case, Schindler and Rambo are brothers in a family of Russian Jews. When local collaborators kill their parents, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber) hide in the forest with their younger brothers, Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George Mackay).

Tuvia finds out who was responsible for their parents' death and exacts revenge. He doesn't enjoy his first taste of killing and tries to avoid it from then on ("Our revenge is to live"), while Zus, "the wild one," can't get enough.

Encountering other Jews hiding in the forest, they form a colony of sorts. Tuvia reluctantly takes command because he has strong opinions and yells louder than anyone else. The group includes academics who have intellectual arguments over chess, but everyone argues about something, the stereotype of verbally combative Jews being used for comic relief when it doesn't lead to violence.

The film begins in August 1941. By October, they've got a good-sized kibbutz, and each new arrival brings news of the death of someone close to someone already there. A lot happens between then and December, including the destruction of their camp by German soldiers and the building of a new one; and the absorption of a large number of Jews whose lives are in danger in a nearby ghetto.

Zus tires of the relatively peaceful life and joins a Red Army brigade where Jews are technically treated as equals according to party policy, although some anti-Semitism exists. In Godfather fashion, a wedding is intercut with an ambush.

A rough, hungry winter follows. When spring comes, the German army plans a major assault on the area that happens to coincide with the start of Passover, so Tuvia gets to play Moses, leading his followers to a safer place, if not the promised land. The journey includes enough battles to make a decent action climax. 

The events that inspired Defiance, as chronicled in Nechama Tec's book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, certainly offer material for a movie, quite possibly a better one than this. The screenplay by Clayton Frohman and director Edward Zwick seems to be following a checklist of required elements, including regularly-spaced action sequences and romance for each of the three adult brothers (though many of their compatriots settled for "forest marriages"), while ignoring background about the Bielskis' history that would have added texture and dimension to the characters and their relationship.

Instead of going the black-and-white route like Schindler's List, Zwick often opts for muted color that makes everything look dark and must have driven his cinematographer crazy trying to make key elements stand out in the murkiness.

Defiance isn't terrible by any means, but one feels the story they were trying to tell deserved better treatment.