July 18, 2011

Max Manus: Man of War

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of five): * * *

Max Manus: Man of War is a WWII epic based on a true story of Norwegian resistance fighter Max Manus. With a DVD release title and cover art that makes it sound like a comic book straight to video, the film from Bandidas directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roennin looks good and is exciting enough to hold attention, especially for war history buffs, but the script doesn't break any especially new ground.

Max Manus opens with an obligatory and probably unnecessary "how we got here" WWII background montage before starting in a 1940 Finland snow-covered  battlefield then flashing back a few months earlier to when Germany has taken over Finland. Manus, our hero (played by Aksel Hennie), says "I was embarrassed to be from Finland." And thus we get the story of how Manus bravely became part of an unheralded resistance movement in his native country.

While Manus has been propped up to almost mythic status, he and his cohorts -- which the film depicts with what feels like a fair mind -- rarely had large-scale successes. These resistance fighters were rather naive to start, as Manus admits in voiceover: "I didn’t think of consequences back then." They were heroic mainly for continually defying the Nazis, maintaining their underground movement, and managing to evade death (or, at least some of them managed). The film depicts their series of often botched, risky ventures of terrorism. This also points to the issue with doing a fact-based historical piece, in that you are held captive by the structure as it unfolded in real life, which doesn't necessarily serve a cinematic narrative all that well.

Which is not to say the film isn't at times quite gripping. On of the film's more memorable sequences happens early on, and involves Manus surviving an attack, under watch in a hospital and then jumping out a window with the help of a nurse to escape interrogating Gestapo, a smart move as it turns out. Training in Scotland, Manus is reunited with an old friend only to find the mission he's sent on doesn't include his friend.

Actor Hennie (who had supporting roles in Hawaii, Oslo and A Somewhat Gentle Man) looks a little like a more Nordic, slightly more handsome Steve Buscemi and is an engaging presence here. He's given some able support around him, most notably the striking Agnes Kittelsen, who plays Tikken Lindebraekke, the love interest who would later become his wife. Nicolai Cleve Broch and Knut Joner are appealing as Manus' friends and co-conspirators. Ken Duken looks the part as chief adversary, the Gestapo officer Siegfried Fehmer, but both he and the script don't give the character the proper level of memorable menace needed, and some of his key scenes fall flat.

I also find the pacing a bit slow -- it could have been tightened to push toward the more exciting second half a bit faster -- though this allows more time than expected to really get to know the characters. And it's not especially aided by occasionally choppy editing; sometimes it's hard to get a grasp on geography in the film, an awareness of where we are in time or place.

A finale that features a face to face between Manus and the central villainous Nazi is left lacking, because just what we want to see in a historical action piece is a talky climax. A penultimate scene, in which Max remembers all his fallen compatriots, is more moving even as Manus complains that it was all fruitless. But, hey, c'est la guerre.

Overall, while Max Manus: Man of War is often overly polished and formulaic, it remains entertaining enough and WWII history buffs will find it hard to resist.

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Posted by maian at July 18, 2011 9:39 PM
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