‘Fess up: You wanna see some Nazis get good and fucked up, don’t you?
No, we’re not talking about the current plague of willfully ignorant racists and dangerously unstable, wild-card chuckleheads, though we’d be all too happy to see that collective pox on society fall off the face of the earth. We mean the old kind, the rat bastards who tore through Europe decades ago and still have a hold on the popular imagination as the definition of villainy. There’s no “on both sides” bullshit with these soldiers and S.S. officers, no corrupt presidential basemongering; once upon a time, we had a commander-in-chief who actually declared war on them. They were (are) the unambiguous bad guys. We good guys went over to fight them and stop them — especially if these enemies of all that was decent and kind also happened to be turning innocent villagers into zombie super troopers.
So if for no other reason that good old-fashioned catharsis, go see Overlord, director Julius Avery’s oddball mash-up of WWII men-on-a-mission flicks and Monster Chiller Horror Theater-type movies. It’s the wee small hours of June 6th, 1944. Allied ships are sailing Normandy under the cover of darkness and the protection of fighter planes, including the one that’s flying Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), his fellow grunts and a mysterious demolitions expert named Ford (Wyatt Russell) into occupied territory. The platoon is set to parachute into France and make their way to a small village that’s become a German stronghold. Once there, they have to disable a communications tower so the boys on those boats can hit the beaches running. A piece of cake, right?
For a while, the film settles into an familiar war movie groove, complete with a gung-ho sergeant (the great Bokeem Woodbine) who’s fluent in Inglourious Bastards Pitt-er patter and a Brooklyn-accented soldier (John Magaro) who constantly seems like he’s seconds away from talking about eating a Coney Island hot dog at a Dodgers game. When the plane is shot down over their target, what’s left of the squad encounter a young French woman, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who houses them in her attic. She, alas, is the unwilling object of desire for the Nazi head honcho Wafner (Game of Thrones‘ Pilou Asbæk) — a bad dude in a black trenchcoat who conforms so wonderfully to the stereotype of an evil S.S. officer that you’re surprised they didn’t just call him Obergruppenführer Jones. This means unwanted attention regarding the men’s sanctuary, which means narrow escapes, hostage-taking, some violent interrogations and Boyce hiding out in a church that doubles as the communications tower’s HQ.
It’s there that the horror aspects slowly start to slither into the picture and you’re reminded that this is a movie produced by J.J. Abrams. (The good news: This is not a stealth addition to the Cloverfield universe. You’ll have to save your “Cloverlord” jokes for another day.) It turns out that this walled-off house of the holy doubles as the site for some unholy experiments on the locals. Something wicked this way lies in the locked rooms with moaning, mewling, gurgling and groaning “volunteers,” by those cocoon-like body bags hanging from ceilings and within the laboratories where disembodied heads plead for mercy killings.
Meanwhile, Boyce happens to pocket a syringe of purple-ish goo he finds before making his way back to the safe house with a captured comrade (Dominic Applewhite) in tow. Once there, a gun goes off. A soldier dies. For some reason, our hero jabs the dead man with the hypo … and the corpse suddenly springs back to life. The guy now feels fine — better than fine, in fact. Except his head hurts. So he rams into a thick wooden beam. And then it nearly falls off his shoulders, which have been punctured by his broken clavicle bones. He starts tossing folks around courtesy of his newfound super-strength, until a hail of bullets and some brain-bashing permanently halt his rage spiral. What the hell just happened? “A thousand-year reich,” Wafner replies, “needs thousand-year soldiers.”
This is where Overlord hits its maximum mondo-cinema peak, despite the fact that there are still things like a booby-trapped motorcycle, a few firefights, someone getting half of their face shot off (and then just considering the absence of a cheek nothing but a cosmetic blemish) and the appearance of a hyperkinetic one-armed ghoul on the horizon. Somehow, the momentum starts to slow down even as the mayhem ramps up, and the climactic boss battle almost feels like an afterthought; things start to devolve from creepy to cartoonish in record time. An Australian filmmaker best known for his crime thriller Son of a Gun (2014), Avery knows how to jack up pulpy material, and along with co-writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, he’s thrown a lot of different ingredients into this genre gumbo. Yet the scares feel perfunctory and the set pieces feel like they’re over before they’ve really begun; despite adhering to the rule that any flamethrower placed on the mantle in Act One must roast someone to a crisp in Act Three, the movie never quite rises to the over-the-top madness it needs to hit. It’s the rare U.S.-Army-versus-Nazi-zombie-supersoldiers movie that, even when it lays on the psychotronic elements, still feels like it’s too mild by half.
There are wisps of deeper meaning hiding just beneath the surface, mostly around becoming a monster simply by losing your moral center. (“I don’t recognize myself,” Chloe says after life during wartime has forced her to cross some lines; let’s just say Ford isn’t quite a white knight, either.) The same could be said for watching your neighbors morph into people who might turn against you, whether its courtesy of Mengele-like doctor, a Vichy-France mindset or a fake-news viral video. But really, Overlord boils down to three questions: Are you in the mood for a blockbuster that you wished Paul Verhoeven had made in the Nineties, injected with the blood of a dozen Seventies exploitation B movies? Is the idea of watching Adepo step up to the leading-man plate, Russell settle nicely into a Snake Plissken-lite vibe (you can see how he’ll mature nicely into an action hero) and Asbæk sink his teeth into a villain role enough to liberate cash from your wallet? Do you wanna watch some Nazis get punched? We may have a late-autumn film for you.