By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Defiance is unlike any Holocaust movie I've seen, a fact-based drama in which Jews don't just huddle in fear, depending on someone to rescue them from extinction.
These Jews strike back, executing collaborators, Nazis and their families with a vengeance bordering on bloodlust.
The movie's eye-for-an-eye mentality understandably earns cheers from moviegoers. Director Edward Zwick depicts guerrilla raids and ambushes with the same intensity that marked The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. But action sequences overshadow historical context; Defiance makes this justifiable revenge look too easy.
The heroes are the Bielski brothers, Polish Jews with family members herded into ghettos and death camps if they weren't killed first. The Bielskis are also the subject of a Florida Holocaust Museum exhibit, and several of their descendants live in the Tampa Bay area.
Eldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is obsessed with payback, operating with the cool ruthlessness of Craig's James Bond. Middle brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) prefers more organized revolt, joining Russian troops against the Nazis. Youngest brother Asael (Jamie Bell) is a leader among Jews hiding in a Lipicanzia Forest commune.
The creation of that secret society is a fascinating aspect of Defiance, as leadership is contested and sudden widowers choose "forest wives" who are forbidden to become pregnant. Procreation would spread dwindling food supplies thinner, and infant cries could be telltale clues to the camp's location. Such details impress Zwick, but he's more interested in mowing down Nazis.
Defiance crackles with suspense despite hindsight knowledge that the Bielskis' victories were aberrations to the horrors of the Holocaust. We're nonetheless excited by their actions, partly because the reversal of aggression is fresh in movies. The underdog factor even makes Tuvia's most intimate confrontations and kills seem less like terrorism than their brutal circumstances may suggest.
Craig is a minor mistake in casting, looking too WASP for authenticity and carrying the baggage of being an action hero. An actor less masculine would give Tuvia's violent streak more emotional depth. Schreiber has the best-written role in Zwick and Clayton Frohman's screenplay, nailing each emotional contradiction and fraternal rivalry.
Defiance can be forgiven for emphasizing thrills over historical detail since plenty of other Holocaust movies teach about the suffering. Zwick's movie offers the kind of catharsis that African-Americans felt with Shaft and oppressed women got from Thelma & Louise. For two hours in a movie theater, the good guys really do win.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.