Hard to imagine what could have given filmmakers in 2018 the idea that moviegoers want to see Nazis get killed, but hey, we’ll take ’em. Overlord, a violent, horror-tinged, sci-fi take on Germany’s World War II atrocities, recalls the Nazisploitation flicks of the ’60s and ’70s grindhouse circuit, except that it’s from the point of view of the American interceders, not the Nazis themselves. Also, it cost a lot more to make than, say, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. The point is, to enjoy Overlord or anything else in this category, you have to be OK with entertainment that’s laden with Nazi imagery (which can be hard to take even when the story’s message is clearly anti-Nazi).
You also need to be OK with entertainment that’s dripping with blood and guts, because HOO BOY. Director Julius Avery, backed by producer J.J. Abrams and a fervently tacky screenplay by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), considers the story’s gruesome possibilities to be a feature, not a bug. He’d undoubtedly right; the audience that goes for Nazi-themed horror tends to enjoy gore, too. And if you’re not the audience for this, you probably already realize it.
It’s 1944, and in preparation for D-Day, the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division has to sneak into Nazi-occupied France and disable a radio tower on top of a church. A tough-acting Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell), brought in to advise and intent on carrying out the mission at all costs, becomes the commanding officer when the plane carrying the team is shot down and only a handful of privates remain: Boyce (Jovan Adepo), who wants to do the mission but save innocent bystanders too; Tibbet (John Magaro), the requisite Brooklyn wise-ass; and Chase (Iain De Caestecker), an Army photographer embedded with the 101st Airborne.
(A few other survivors don’t survive long, including the requisite hick who steps on a landmine the moment he starts speaking wistfully about his postwar plans. The WWII movie template is in full effect here.)
After saving a local villager, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and her little brother (Gianny Taufer) from a rapey Nazi officer (Pilou Asbaek), the team discovers that the church isn’t just where the Germans have planted a radio tower but is also a house of horrors where the Nazis are conducting gruesome medical experiments on their way to building “super soldiers.” These experiments might involve the raising of the dead, which could lead to NAZI ZOMBIES.
Yep, we’re in the realm of mad scientists, dangerous serums, and human monsters — classic B-movie stuff, rendered with gory, over-the-top gusto. The thinking seems to be that since using the Nazis’ real experiments as a springboard for ghoulish entertainment is inherently distasteful, one might as well go all the way. There’s logic to that, and Overlord is a lot of audacious fun when it’s about the Americans fighting and destroying the Third Reich’s grotesque monsters, which they do with enthusiasm and extreme prejudice.
But speaking of horrors, let’s talk about Wyatt Russell’s performance. Cpl. Ford is supposed to be a badass, but in Russell’s hands he only ever seems like a soft doofus who’s pretending to be a badass. Russell lacks the gravitas to convincingly play a man who’s experienced the hell of war, and is consistently out-acted by Jovan Adepo (from HBO’s The Leftovers), whose Pvt. Boyce grapples with his reputation among the men as someone who’s reluctant to kill — a positive trait normally, but not during a war.
Avery, whose only prior feature was 2014’s unseen Son of a Gun, shows impressive technical skills here, notably in the parachuting sequence (which would be the best skydiving scene of the year, hands down, were it not for Mission: Impossible — Fallout). Overlord is shallow comic book carnage with no subtext, but it successfully walks the line between serious and ludicrous without tipping over into campy, and the war-movie tropes are used effectively. Besides, it’s good to see Nazi-killing portrayed on the screen now and then, just to keep our skills fresh.