Actors who get cast as James Bond all too often find it hard to shake off that iconic character. Our last 007, Pierce Brosnan, has been finding it particularly tricky, picking up roles as sleazy losers in the likes of The Matador and cheesy all-singing, all-dancing clichés in Mamma Mia in a desperate attempt to show that he can do things other than look good in a tuxedo while fighting baddies and performing spectacular stunts. Bond before him Timothy Dalton spent a good decade carefully picking parts that would shake off the threat of typecasting, from villains to more nuanced and subtle characters on stage and small screen. Roger Moore, of course, didn’t need to bother – he turned Bond into an extension of his existing public persona rather than struggle to live up to the character’s legacy. One-time Bond George Lazenby is still, forty years on, still only remembered for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, while it took the now-retired Sean Connery a good decade, a bald patch and facial hair before he began to be accepted in non-Bond roles by the public at large.
So what of current Bond Daniel Craig, so recently on our screens in his second outing with a license to kill? Since his 2006 Bond debut he’s cropped up in sub-par sci-fi effort The Invasion, sadly unsuccessful Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass (enjoyable, but not enough of a cash cow to have warranted any sequels, despite it being an adaptation of the first book in a trilogy), and the low-budget British effort Flashbacks of a Fool, where rising star Craig played a fading star ruminating on life after the death of a friend in a decent character study that wasn‘t quite as profound as it thought it was. It’s a relatively eclectic mix – just as was Craig’s pre-Bond CV, with its smattering of serious dramas and flashy actioners, from Tomb Raider to Sylvia.
This latest offering from Craig is, if anything, a combination of both – part serious drama, part actioner. The reason? Defiance tells the true story of four Jewish brothers who, during the Second World War, escaped the Nazis to join up with the Belarussian resistance and battle to free other concentration camp prisoners. The real-life Bielski brothers – played here by Craig, the always reliable Live Schrieber, former Billy Elliot Jamie Bell and up-and-coming child actor George MacKay – spent four years hiding in makeshift camps in the Belarussian forests, gradually building up a sizable group of supporters to launch raids on German camps, rescuing well over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust, and causing untold damage to the Nazi war effort in the east through various acts of sabotage. It is one of those many heroic stories of the war that has, somehow, not yet got the big screen treatment, despite having everything you could want from a decent war film.
At once epic in scope and intimate in detail, Defiance is, however, faintly disappointing despite the best efforts of the cast. With such a strong premise – not to mention a budget of a good $50 million – it’s a genuine shame that something more engaging couldn’t have been constructed from such promising material. Still worth a look just for the real life story of these remarkable and little-known heroes of WWII, but hardly a great addition to an already overloaded genre.