★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Simply put, a fun time at the movies! A big, brash, and gory WWII tale, featuring undead Nazi super-soldiers.
Directed by Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo (Boyce), Wyatt Russell (Ford), Mathilde Olivier (Chloe), Pilou Asbaek (Wafner), John Magaro (Tibbet), Gianni Taufer (Paul), Bokeem Woodbine (Sgt. Rensin), and Ian De Caesteker (Chase)
Have you ever played the old video game Castle Wolfenstein? Thematically, this feels like the direct descendant of that old chestnut. Those damned Nazis are up to no good, and they have taken to some creepy Frankenstein-ish experiments. This is very much a war movie, first and foremost, but it has some strong horror components to it. The movie starts in media res, in a Band of Brothers-like opening sequence, where a group of fresh American soldiers are being flown to paratroop behind enemy lines on D-Day. They are to take out a radar installation hidden in a church on the top of a hill in a Normandy village, to prepare the way for the marine landings on the beach.
We follow Boyce, a Louisiana Creole kid on his first mission. He’s a gentle soul who has been thrust into violent circumstances. At first, the young troops are full of bravado, and like many war movies, these kids are baptized under fire, as their transport plane is cut to ribbons by anti-aircraft fire. It’s a harrowing moment, a truly riveting and chaotic ordeal.
The paratroopers are scattered across the countryside since their jump under duress was a hot mess. The few surviving soldiers of the platoon are led by an Italian campaign veteran, Corporal Ford, who is the tough no-nonsense soldier in charge, along with eager and naive photographer Private Chase, and the wisecracking sharpshooter Private Tibbet. If you know your war movie tropes, they are in abundance in this film.
When they finally reach their mission point, the little village has been suffering under the cruel governance of Captain Wafner, your classic ambitious Nazi officer/bully. There is a lovely young French woman, Chloe, who is the object of Captain Wafner’s desires… but she’s in the resistance! (Of course, she is.) She remains in the occupied village to protect her little brother, George, and her Aunt who is “sick”. Boyce and Chloe develop a quiet admiration for each other, in a relationship that approaches romantic, but stops just short of that. And she’s no damsel in distress; in a modern action heroine twist, she is ready to pick up arms and take on the Germans along with the G.I’s.
Wafner has taken Chloe’s parents to the base, and they are presumed to be dead. Wafner is also the commander at the Nazi base at the church target of the troops, and it just happens to have a large underground laboratory complex. And wouldn’t you know it? They’re making undead super-soldiers! And now, it’s up to our small band of soldiers to go do something about this, while the clock runs out on their original orders to blow up the radio installation. Action and mayhem ensues! (No spoilers, there.)
Overlord has all the trappings of a gory Captain America the First Avenger tale, minus Cap, but this time the nasty super-soldier serum is being pumped into recently killed soldiers, to create an undead “Thousand Year Reich.” Put ’em down, and they pop right back up, and are supernaturally strong to boot! Clearly, this is a fantasy action romp with gore. It also carries all the familiar beats of a superhero movie.
There’s the reluctant hero. The ethical dilemma. The noble side quest that conflicts with direct orders. The undermanned suicide mission against overwhelming odds. The mad-scientist henchman, and plenty of Nazi redshirts. So, you’ve seen these tropes before. It is not a really original movie, but it is a very well executed familiar movie. Even when the next action is telegraphed, the payoff is worth it. In that way it is very much like a Marvel action hero adventure.
Jovan Adepo is a star in the making. His Private Boyce is a large reason why all of those familiar beats work. His earnestness, courage, and loyalty burst from the screen. All of the supporting cast compliment his role really well. Mathilde Olivier and Wyatt Russell are particularly good. If Wyatt Russell looks familiar, he should. He’s the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and he’s well suited for the tough guy role that his father has patented.
Something in the back of my mind kept cropping up though. Didn’t Truman integrate the armed forces to put African Americans in combat units in 1952? Yep. And there are several black men in this platoon. Bokeem Woodbine, and Jacob Anderson (Greyworm from Game of Thrones) are also members of the unit, so it isn’t like Boyle is the only black man in his platoon. So, the movie is about as historically accurate as the Spartan historical fantasy spectacle 300. And truth be told, if you have undead super-soldiers, all bets are off as to the historical accuracy of the film anyhow. I chalk it up to being an alternative universe, again, like a superhero movie.
J.J. Abram’s fingerprints are all over this production. This is Julius Avery’s second major feature film, but it feels like an R-Rated Abrams movie, which in turn feels Spielbergian. The World War II era so loved by both Spielberg and Abrams is the whole setting construct, but also there’s a plucky kid MacGuffin, and the smooth storytelling ease that is so evident in their films. There is a directing family tree now in evidence, and it should do well for Avery’s career if he continues to make good action flicks like this. The movie also looks fantastic, and the effects are seamless. This is a combination of blockbuster production values and grindhouse attitude and strings it in a way that should please fans of both.
The simplicity of the story script also allows it to walk that line, you never once have to wonder where the film is going. For somebody whose enjoyment of horror movies goes towards the independent, heady, psychological fare… well, this isn’t that kind of movie. Hereditary, this is not. If you like popcorn fare, action horror that gets your adrenaline up? This movie delivers those feels.
Overlord is rated R for intense war violence, crunchy Nazi zombies, and language. I would equate it to a Walking Dead, if you’re looking for a comparable level of horror and action. The movie opens in theaters nation-wide Today.