In case there are any young folks out there who aren’t convinced that the Nazis were bad — shockingly, there still seem to be stragglers — here stomps Julius Avery’s World War II thriller “Overlord,” a blast of righteous rage in which a group of good American boys avenge themselves against an SS goon squad made of child torturers, corpse defilers, icon-burners, murderers, and rapists. These Germans even spit on baseballs.
“Overlord” is a jingoistic throwback to a time of moral clarity when there weren’t very fine people on both sides, adapted for an audience that likes its action movies to be structured like video games, with Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) creeping down brick hallways like he’s in a first-person shooter, pausing to pick up clues. Novel? Not especially. “Overlord” works best as a patriotism booster shot — it’s “Inglourious Basterds” without a swizzle of irony. But at its Fantastic Fest premiere, the audience applauded for the goriest Nazi deaths with sincere glee, content to duck out from the news cycle to spend two hours in a world of clear heroes and villains.
Overlord’s opening sequence is fantastic. It’s the night before D-Day, and the sky and seas are cluttered with soldiers steeling themselves for the morning’s big fight. Avery opens in the air with a plane of paratroopers preparing to take out a Nazi radio tower mounted like a wicked steeple atop an occupied village church. The camera focuses on the young Americans’ nerves, the bouncing knees, clenched fingers, and empty boasting, as though loudmouth Tibbet (John Magaro), the one with the obligatory Bronx accent, plans to personally assassinate Hitler. When they reach the French coast, they’re suddenly surrounded by stark chaos, planes plummeting through the air, bullets ripping through their fuselage, a color palette by cinematographers Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner made only of smoke gray and fireball red.
Private Boyce, the film’s conscience, is silent and terrified. He almost failed out of boot camp because he was too timid to kill a mouse — literally, he captured one that liked to leave droppings in their tent and chose to set it free, for which Tibbet mocks him mercilessly. Meanwhile, taciturn new addition Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), an explosives expert, limits himself to macho platitudes like, “You keep worrying about dead bodies you’re going to be one,” and the even simpler to needlepoint, “Friends die.” When their commander (Bokeem Woodbine) commands, “We have to be just as rotten as they are,” there’s a sense that screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith intend to use Ford’s violent tactics to test how far audiences will support a good guy character who willingly uses torture. (There’s even a shot of a German prisoner strung up and hooded like an image from Abu Ghraib.) But the Nazis are so cartoonishly evil that there’s never a debate: These blonde, big-cheekboned fiends must be stopped by any means necessary.
Russell is miscast as a battle-scarred grunt — he has the untroubled brow of someone who always smells of sunscreen. Yet, when Ford and Boyce regroup on land along with remaining survivors Tibbet and a mellow war correspondent (Iain De Caestecker) who sees nothing wrong with tromping around Nazi territory with a giant flashbulb around his neck, Avery is able to wring out a few more shots of beautiful and unearthly brutality: dead men dangling from trees, bobbing parachutes that look like jellyfish, and, a beat later inside the house of an orphaned French freedom fighter named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), moody hallways where she and her surviving family members have a habit of silently tiptoeing behind the Americans for a jump scare “Boo!”
Avery has a whatever-works enthusiasm for all types of shock tactics, from brass knuckles torture to body-horror shivers, with exposed spines and man-made amniotic sacks. Even before the introduction of a sadistic doctor who speaks as calmly as if he were ordering a mug of tea, “Overlord” plays free and loose with World War II history, including its vision of a colorblind American Army, a fallacy with the worthwhile trade-off of bumping up the empathetic and grounded Jovan Adepo to a lead role after his strong supporting turn as Denzel Washington’s embittered son in “Fences.”
“Overlord” is produced by J.J. Abrams, who likes to make films with twists that are never quite as surprising as he thinks. Even at its most suspenseful, when Jed Kurzel’s cello score stabs at the eardrums, “Overlord” feels familiar, a collage of cinematic nightmares checking off its influences: a woman wielding a flamethrower like Ripley in “Aliens,” a cruel SS officer (the terrifically hissable Pilou Asbæk) who grins like a Batman villain, and enough of a “Castle Wolfenstein” video-game vibe that its fans may find themselves reaching for the controls out of habit. Perhaps “Overlord” is for them, the GamerGate trolls who mistakenly think white supremacy is a lark. If it peels a few away from buying tiki torches, it deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Otherwise, it’s junk food patriotism — but there’s a grumbling hunger for it.