Edward Zwick might be the most consistent director in the history of cinema. His modus operandi: take a little-known but inspiring historical event - failing that, invent one - and falteringly turn it into a lumpy action film lousy with good intentions and lousier with clumsy execution. I honestly feel a bit bad for the man: he obviously means well, but every one of his films I've seen ends up pitched midway between a civics lesson and a crummy '80s flick, with the exception of Legends of the Fall, which is pitched midway between a civics lesson and a crummy Merchant Ivory flick.

Eventully, it was going to happen that Zwick would set his sights on World War II and the Holocaust; and here it is that we have Defiance, based on Nechama Tec's account of the true story of the Bielski brothers, three Belarusian Jews who resisted the Nazi onslaught by founding a society deep in the forests on what is today the Belarus-Poland border. For two years the Bielski Partisans protected an ever-increasing community of Jewish refugees, while occasionally mounting attacks against the encroaching Germany war machine.

It's certainly an interesting story, one that certainly lives up to the advertising campaign's breathless proclamation that it is one of the greatest lost tales of World War II. Already, Zwick has received some flack for fudging his history a bit, but it's hardly akin to what he did in The Last Samurai, still his best film, although that's not really saying very much. Anyway, complaining about the historical inaccuracies of Defiance isn't a terribly rewarding use of one's time and energies, to my mind. Better by far to complain about the film just on its own terms: it's apparently a tribute to the men and women who refused to be simply victimised by the Nazis that presents them as... three hardasses and a whole bunch of mewling victims. The only defiance on display is in the form of the three Bielskis, who have to shepherd a whole lot of whinging stereotypes through the woods, and don't seem particularly keen on doing it. It's sort of like an idiot's version of Schindler's List, only without the historic scope or the great morality play in the heart of the protagonist; Defiance even gets its very own version of the "I could have done more!" speech, at roughly the same point in the narrative. But a tribute to the enduring spirit of the Jewish people? Hardly - in fact, it rather argues to the idea that the Belarusian Jews were content to die like sheep before those noble Bielski boys saved them. Though coming from a filmmaker who apparently didn't think that Blood Diamond was racist, it shouldn't be surprising that what he wanted this movie to mean, and what it did mean are separated by something close to 180 degrees.

As a simple war movie, Defiance is admittedly better than it is as a message picture. Thanks to a team of high-class collaborators - particularly editor Steven Rosenblum, whose journeyman work has enlivened quite a few combat-heavy movies, several of them directed by Zwick - the film does have a few reasonably effective fighting sequences, saving the very best for last: a man-on-tank setpiece that comes terribly close to making us leave the theater convinced that we've just seen a real rousing bit of cinema. The curiously-underappreciated Eduardo Serra shoots most of the film under a grainy blue haze that, for my tastes, counts among the best cinematography of the year: Defiance as a real texture to it, in an age when smoothness and too much digital intermediate define how most Hollywood movies look (there is obviously DI in the film, but it's not as omnipresent and upsetting as is typically the case). I'll say this for Edward Zwick: he's a solid craftsman. Terrible taste in screenplays, and he's not much of a writer himself, but you go to a Zwick film, and you're going to see really fine visuals assembled by talented individuals.

In this particular case, the fine war movie craftsmanship accounts for about 20% of the whole; the rest is given over to the story of the Bielskis and their vengeance-driven quest to save the world. The brothers themselves are a curious problem: played by Daniel Craig (as Tuvia, the eldest), Liev Schreiber (as Zus, the second) and Jamie Bell (as Asael, the youngest), they don't really seem like they're from the same family, or quite the same movie. For Craig's part, I salute that he has taken such measures to avoid being typecast as James Bond, but this is the second time in three years (after Spielberg's Munich) that he's played a Jewish character: and bless his blond head and blue eyes, but he's just not very convincing at it. Which isn't to say that he doesn't play the character alright, although there's not much to Tuvia besides sadness and a dim moral awakening, but there's a fundamental disconnect between who Tuvia is - a man fighting an existential battle because of the people he was born to - and what Craig brings to the table - steel-eyed badassery. Schreiber, the only Jewish actor to play a Bielski, gets a much more interesting character to play (Zus is alone in wishing to do violence against the Germans, instead of merely surviving, and thus runs off to aid the anti-Semitic Red Army), and he makes the most of it: Schreiber's angry interactions with Craig are easily the most dramatically and emotionally compelling moments in the film. Unfortunately, he gets shuttled offscreen for large chunks of the film, and when he's present, he has a tendency to drop his accent. Bell, meanwhile, is pretty and callow, playing a pretty and callow character.

So back to my initial point: Zwick is a terribly consistent filmmaker, and he's done yet again exactly what he always does. Defiance is technically accomplished, formally uninventive, and fumbles its story right from the word go. The Bielskis deserved a better film than this, but so did the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, all the way back in the well-intentioned, fumbled Glory. One day, maybe, Zwick will stop wanting an Oscar so badly, and he'll make a movie that just tells a good story without feeling compelled to learn us all a Very Important Lesson. Until then, we've got another goddamn World War II film this season. Enjoy.