Max Manus -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- Norway weighs in with its version of World War II in "Max Manus," finally getting to honor its own resistance heroes.

The film takes its title from the name of the gutsiest and most colorful -- if not necessarily the most important -- figure in the clandestine movement against the Nazis. Since the Germans overran Norway in two embarrassingly short months, spawning a collaborationist government that gave the word "quisling" to the world (he was the head of the government), it's good to hear about the brave anti-Nazi Norwegians who risked life and limb for five long years against the invaders.

That said, much of the film remains pretty standard-issue partisan boilerplate: enthusiastic and foolhardy amateurs for whom war is a game, followed by lots and lots of operations and gun battles as the Nazis become increasingly panicky, ending in a final victory tinged with disillusionment. What "Manus" has going for it is two things: the almost Hollywood-level slickness of its high production values, which always keep the action scenes interesting (if repetitive), and the profound depth of Max's despondency at the end of the film, when he finally takes a respite from his nonstop bravado to realize all his buddies are dead.

Not surprisingly, boxoffice receipts in Norway have been enormous since the film opened there during the summer, and it's only natural that prospects elsewhere will necessarily be much more modest. Still, it's a handsome big-budget production with lots of suspense and excitement, and the right U.S. distributor probably could turn a modest profit. Given the eternal popularity of World War II with moviegoers, ancillary sales should be very good.

Max Manus (played by Aksel Hennie, one of Norway's best-known actors) gets his initial training fighting as a volunteer against the Russians in Finland, and the hand-to-hand brutality of the snow-filled combat haunts him throughout the film. After the Nazi Blitzkrieg quickly defeats Norwegian forces, Max joins the "Oslo group," patriots ashamed of their country's quick surrender who specialize in blowing up high-value Nazi targets in the Oslo harbor. Co-directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning throw in the obligatory love interest, but it works because its rough, atypical contours don't run very smoothly. By the end, Max is an alcoholic whose nerves are shattered; nevertheless, as we would expect in a film like this, a faint smile finally shows on his face as he rides in the victory parade with the king.

The film is always engaging, from the boyish horseplay of the young innocents to the bravado shown in multiple encounters to the involvement of the revered king in exile to the final toll taken by the increasingly ruthless Nazis. An intriguing debate that structures the film is the efficacy of fighting the Nazis with propaganda, to win over the populace, versus direct attacks that inevitably get a lot of civilians killed. Specific Nazi villains, the kind who line up innocent civilians and execute them in reprisal for "terrorist" acts, nicely punctuate the proceedings, as do lovely shots of a picturesque Scotland, where they train for their first mission. None of this is new, but it works.

Production: Filmkameratene A/S, B & T Film
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Agnes Kittelsen, Knut Joner, Ken Duken
Directors: Espen Sandberg, Joachim Roenning
Screenwriter: Thomas Nordseth-Tiller
Producer: John M. Jacobsen, Sveinung Golimo
Director of photography: Geir Hartly Andreassen
Production designer: Karl Juliusson
Music: Trond Bjerknes
Editor: Anders Refn
Sales: TrustNordisk
No rating, 118 minutes
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