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‘Defiance’ can’t decide what it wants to be

Edward Zwick's rousing WWII action movie is weighed down by Holocaust Oscar-film pretensions.

“Defiance” director Edward Zwick certainly isn’t afraid of archetypes: We know who the villain’s going to be (it’s the guy with the bad teeth), we know who’s going to marry the hero (it’s the one woman who looks stunning with apparently no makeup on) and we know who the hero is (it’s Daniel Craig as the movie’s one blond, blue-eyed Russian Jew).

It’s too bad that Zwick didn’t feel secure enough about what’s best about “Defiance” — the film’s action-packed scenes of armed resistance against Nazis fighting in Russia — and found himself trapped in another archetype, that of the serious, self-aware, Important Holocaust Drama.

Not that the horrors of the Final Solution don’t still resonate some 60 years after the end of World War II, but does every film on the topic have to be so crushingly earnest? For all its flaws — and there were a lot of them — didn’t “Life is Beautiful” open the door a little to alternate approaches to discussing this genocide on film?

Starting with a true story — which, in Hollywood terms, means that what you see on screen bears only fleeting resemblance to actual people and occurrences — “Defiance” tells the story of the Bielski brothers, who kept thousands of Jews alive in the woods of Belarussia while also getting into armed battles with the Nazi occupiers and even raiding their compounds.

Besides World War II itself, the other big conflict being fought out in “Defiance” is the difference of opinion between the brothers: Tuvia (Craig), the oldest, is more concerned with keeping their cadre alive, even though it means taking care of children and the elderly, while hot-headed second brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) wants to join up with the Red Army to kill more Germans.

The taut action sequences, the interplay between Craig and Schreiber and Jamie Bell (as younger brother Asael), and Zus’ prickly relationship with his comrades in the notoriously anti-Semitic Russian Army all crackle, and they point to what could have been an immensely satisfying, “Great Escape” kind of adventure.

But then there’s all the philosophizing and the breast-beating and the “God will save us!” stuff that’s been handled frequently and far more interestingly in any number of other Holocaust movies. In “Defiance,” it just feels tacked on, as though making “just” an action movie about Jews in this period of history were somehow glib or heretical.

Nonetheless, “Defiance” is frequently engaging, from its stellar cast (Mark Feuerstein and the great Allan Corduner are a kick as a pair of bickering intellectuals) to its gripping suspense. It’s a shame that Zwick and his co-scenarist Clayton Frohman, adapting the book by Nechama Tec, seem — much like Asael in the film — to be torn between two rival agendas.