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Overlord (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"Delivers a solid battle with Nazi monsters, and what more do you want?"
4 stars

Even without the horror stuff plastered all over the advertising, I don't think you could take someone to see "Overlord" as a wartime action film and have them be caught flat-footed by things going into a decidedly less realistic direction. It gives the game away fairly early and doesn't build quite enough to feel like more than the basics before doing so, but the jump to mad scientists and monsters works pretty well.

It opens like a war movie, with Private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) fresh out of basic training and about to jump out of a plane on a mission to destroy a radar jammer which the Nazis have placed atop a church in occupied France. The actual charges, Sergeant Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine) explains, will be placed by Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), recently in Italy and just transferred to the unit; also on the plane are the equally green Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), smart-aleck sniper Tibbet (John Magaro), would-be writer Dawson (Jacob Anderson), and war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker) - not that all will necessarily make it to the ground, and they wouldn't have much of a base of operations in the village if they didn't luckily meet Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). She's captured the eye of Lieutenant Wafner (Pilou Asb├Žk), one of the nastier pieces of work stationed there, although it soon becomes clear that there's something much worse than radio jamming going on at the church.

Director Julius Avery and his crew never make Overlord as simplistic as wartime B-movies tended to be, but they certainly evoke that - the characters are gung-ho, the mission is fairly straightforward, and tensions within the unit mostly come from Boyce being considered too soft-hearted by the others. In fact, they cast a bit anachronistically so a modern audience might more easily get into the same mindset (there were not integrated units with black sergeants in 1944). Still, the opening of the film is an absolute meat-grinder in its own way, with horrible death and terrible decisions never far from Boyce and Avery stages it impressively enough that the movie never actually needs to have more. The atmosphere just horrific enough that this sort of evil they will soon encounter seems possible, but it's also just pulpy enough to feel like a tall tale rather than something that disrespects those who actually fought.

That Avery and company hit the right pulp fiction vibe from the start means it's not much of a jump when the script by writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith makes a leap into fantastic territory, and I suspect that it would work even if someone didn't entirely know what they were in for: Hints of stuff that's just creepier than the ordinary for a warzone come early, but some portion of the full measure of what the team is in for is splashed across the screen in a zippy sequence that starts in almost humorously ordinary fashion and then gives both Boyce and the audience just enough time to absorb one thing out of a horror comic before the next pops up, also flashing looks at a setting that is both made of gleaming chrome but also jerry-rigged and worn down seemingly both through use and accumulated darkness. That's when they start throwing quality gross-out material at the audience, too (maybe it was more implied than shown during the earilier scenes to keep horror movie violence and real war violence from seeming too equivalent), and start to set up how the final bits of action will be larger and bloodier than life.

And though that's the case, Overlord largely works because it's basically grunt-level. There are no villainous monologues or even snarky bits where one is about to start only for someone to get shot in the head. The filmmakers don't even go in for the secret mission story, and it's not only good for pacing that nobody stops to explain this zombie Frankenstein stuff (and they almost kind of tease the audience by idly dropping that Boyce's grandmother came from Haiti) or to add shades of gray to a WWII zombie Frankenstein movie, but it feels kind of weirdly true: Not only would that setup be dumb in a situation where the NCOs who knew what was going on could have been randomly taken out, but it puts the audience right there with the GIs who are just a bunch of guys in the middle of the soup trying to get their way to the end of their mission. The character types and banter are familiar, throwbacks to simpler movies (if not actual simpler times) the same way the credits are, and while the last act throws more and more at them, it's only so far over the top. The filmmakers may occasionally seem to be coasting, but they know what will make the characters feel desperate and overwhelmed without escalating to the point of absurdity.

It's a fun, capable cast as well. We've seen all these guys before, but the actors make that an asset, and without a whole lot of chatter, we get a lot of what makes them tick. I particularly like Wyatt Russell the gruff no-nonsense corporal who has seen some stuff and channels that into survival with just the barest hint he's overwhelmed. He's abrasive and pragmatic and doesn't explain himself, but by the final scene, you can fill in a lot and see where both his cynicism and maybe a bit of newfound hope come from. Jovan Adepo is nearly as good as the least seasoned member of the unit, as twitchy and nervous as most in the audience would be but having the right sort of desperate decency to grow into what he needs to be. He's got appealing chemistry with Mathilde Ollivier, too.

It's pretty good all around, even if it doesn't quite make a lunge for greatness. But movies that are consistently pretty good from start to finish don't come around quite as often as you'd think, and is there anything more satisfying than blowing Nazi monsters the heck up? Not really, and "Overlord" delivers plenty of that without screwing it up.

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originally posted: 11/10/18 15:10:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/04/19 morris campbell decent could have been better 3 stars
2/07/19 Langano Mindless action flick. 2 stars
11/13/18 Bob Dog Better than expected, unexpected prequel to Run Lola Run FTW 4 stars
11/09/18 Louise One of the best horror movies you`ll see, this or any other year, quite superb. 5 stars
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  09-Nov-2018 (R)
  DVD: 12-Feb-2019


  DVD: 12-Feb-2019

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