2020 | DIR. JONATHAN JAKUBOWICZ | STARRING, JESSE EISENBERG, CLEMANCE POSEY, MATTHIAS SCHWEIGHOFER, ED HARRIS | REVIEW BY NADINE WHITNEY
RESISTANCE presents a story that could in the right hands have carried the gravity of Spielberg’s film, but is sadly lacking despite having a fascinating premise and being based on the remarkable true story of the war time Resistance activities of world-famous mime artist and actor Marcel Marceau.
Beginning in 1938 the film shows a Jewish family in Germany discussing the rise of fascism in the country. The audience is introduced to one of the strongest emotional linchpins in the piece Bella Ramsey’s (from Game of Thrones) Elsbeth. Elsbeth is one of the hundreds of Jewish orphans that Marceau with other members of his family including his brother Alain (Félix Moati) and cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) as well as the sisters Emma (Clémence Poésy) and Mila (Vica Kerekes) will attempt to shelter and shepherd to safety away from the ethnic cleansing of the Nazis. As Elsbeth is put to bed by her parents she asks them why the Nazis hate the Jews; this allows for at least one of four pieces of exposition in the film trying to explain why the Jewish people are considered an outsider threat to dominant forces. After her father reassures her that things will be settled once employment is better and post war reparations paid, the Jewish people will once again be valued as workers. In a stroke that is somewhat typical of how heavy handed the film can be, Elsbeth’s family are at that moment dragged outside and shot by the Nazis. Elsbeth is the orphan that the audience will identify with throughout the film.
Using the technique of framing Marceau’s exploits via General Patton (Ed Harris) addressing his troops at the liberation of Paris, writer and director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who is Argentinian and of Polish Jewish background, attempts to encapsulate the period starting just pre-war in 1938 with Marceau acting in the local cabaret in the border town of Strasbourg in France doing Charlie Chaplin impersonations and finishes with Marceau’s first major public performance which is for the American soldiers.
Putting aside the fact that the real Marceau (born Marcel Mangel) was sixteen at the outbreak of the war, and not a man in his mid-thirties as Jesse Eisenberg is, the film’s major flaw seems to be that Eisenberg doesn’t ever fully dissolve enough into Marceau to be believable. At all times the audience is aware they are watching Eisenberg whose tic and tricks seems to be pale imitations of what one would imagine the young actor would have been like. Marcel’s story begins in a somewhat confusing manner as we are introduced to him being a selfish “artist” who only works at his family’s charcuterie to please his father. His younger brother Alain, who looks like he’s at least in his late 20s, spends most of his time philosophising about the spread of fascism and resents his brother for not doing more to stand up against the oncoming tide.
However, it takes only one conversation with his cousin Georges for him to become established in the movement to help the German and other refugee Jewish children via a scouting troop and later, when Strasbourg was evacuated and he moves with his family to Limoges, he quickly became part of the Organisation Juive de Combat- OJC – which worked with the French Resistance to move Jewish children to safety. Much of Marceau’s abrupt change of heart seems to come from the fact the children find him a charming presence, but also because his love interest Emma is heavily involved in the organisation. A key cell is put together containing Marcel, his brother Alain, Emma and her sister Mila. Along with Georges they find funding to care for the orphans, feed them, train them in how to avoid Nazi detection and find as many safe spaces as possible for them to hide. If Jakubowicz had limited his vision to the acts of bravery that were involved with the young men and women doing just that much he would perhaps have made a successful film – however he extended himself to try to include so much more, including the introduction of The Butcher of Lyon, the infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer).
It seems unnecessary ground to consistently reiterate that someone like Barbie was a monster. Yet the film lingers in giving him a role that is over the top in its violence and menace. Matthias Schweighöfer truly is chilling as Barbie, and the scenes he is in are incredibly tense, but for the most part they are also narratively unlikely. As much as he was known as the man who crushed the French Resistance in the south of France, how much of that would have been done with him personally brandishing razors and guns is questionable.
So much of the film is sadly filler that tries to create a dramatic tension that should already be implicit in the story itself. The fact one of the world’s greatest mimes and actors was a part of a Jewish network of resistance is grist enough for a great story; but Jakubowicz also wants to throw in comedic scenes, fast paced action scenes, a doomed romance, an ineluctable and seemingly inescapable enemy and the personal and artistic growth of Marceau into the mix. Because Eisenberg doesn’t really carry the film via his performance, the narrative shortcomings are all to obvious. Powerful performances by Bella Ramsey and especially Clémence Poésy can’t compensate for the lack of subtlety in the writing and direction. The only moment that one can believe that Eisenberg is Marceau is in the final scene where he is in make-up for the first time and plays the tragedy of losing a loved one to the killing machine of war. Although Marceau did indeed perform for the troops and was awarded recognition from the Allies for his work in the Resistance, even that ultimate expression of Marceau’s journey seems somewhat contrived. The audience through the familiar white face of the mime sees Marceau but because Eisenberg has given the us little to connect with up until that point there is an emptiness to the performance.
RESISTANCE is ultimately a frustratingly insipid piece. It has all the markers of a film that should be competent even if it isn’t great, but it doesn’t really even reach that mark. There are moments that work and are shocking, tense or sometimes surprisingly touching, but they are few and far between in what is a mostly ineffectual production that could have wrought something more poignant and unforgettable to the screen.
The story is pretty straight forward. Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is a mercenary with a death wish who can’t get over the death of his son from lymphoma. In the midst of a drinking binge not unlike the one Martin Sheen went on at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Tyler’s partner, Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani) helicopters in to offer him the job he desperately needs. The teenage son of an imprisoned Bangladeshi drug lord (Pankaj Tripathi) has been kidnapped by rival drug lord, Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) and his father wants him back. The boy in question is Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) and was meant to be in the care of Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) but something went wrong. Next thing you know, Tyler is in Bagladesh and the body count starts to climb as he rescues Ovi and sets out for the extraction point. But, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a double-cross and things go south and suddenly Tyler and Ovi are ducking bullets as they desperately try to make it to the alternative extraction point and safety.
When every man and his dog is out to kill John Wick while he’s trying to get from point A to point B, Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski’s tongues are so firmly in their cheeks that we’re pretty happy to go along for the ultraviolent ride. But here, first time director Sam Hargrave, backed up by Hollywood heavyweights, the Russo Brothers (it’s written by Joe from Ande Parks’ graphic novel Ciuldad and produced by Joe and Anthony) seem to want us to take it all very seriously and that makes the violence quite a different thing. There’s no parody and no edge to it which makes Tyler a ruthless and indiscriminate killer for fortune rather than an otherwise good guy having a bad day.
Don’t get me wrong... I don’t have an aversion to violence in films. I love a good action-thriller, and I don’t mind a big body count if it’s a consequence of a good story rather than the story itself. Plus, I prefer it when the story’s originality and surprises means I’m playing catch up with the screenplay; but here, it’s the other way around.
On the positive side, the chaos of the streets of Bangladesh is breathtakingly and claustrophobically recreated on screen but the fights themselves seem stagey and overly choreographed. Hemsworth makes a good fist (literally) of trying to make Tyler a well-rounded character but it’s just not there in the writing. Jaiswal comes out better in his portrayal of a protected child who finds himself unexpectedly in the maelstrom of the reality of his father’s world but the ‘surrogate father and son’ tropes of his relationship with Tyler are predictable and ham fisted. Even David Harbour who pops up (in the nick of time) as Gaspar, Tyler’s old black-ops buddy, gets tarred with the same cliched brush.
It feels like Extraction aspires to share the company of superior hostage movies like Taylor Hackford’s Proof of Life (2000) or its even closer cousin Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004), but its much more akin to movies like Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977) and Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks (2006) both of which underpin their ‘impossible odds’, ‘armed to the teeth’ obstacles with more compelling characters and stories.
But it’s the end of this movie that feels most cynical. I don’t want to give anything away, other than to say there’s a logical ending to this story which, by all reports, was what Joe Russo originally wrote. But this is Hollywood and Netflix, so endings are the province of test audiences and producer’s investments, rather than the sole responsibility of the storytellers. In this case, the final image of the film seems a complete contrivance and, to me, makes very little sense. But what do I know? The number of eyeballs glued to this movie and glazed over in anticipation of its sequel would tend to disagree.