Music Box Films // 2011 // 113 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // July 8th, 2011
"Everyone here is either stupid or crazy. So if you are crazy or stupid, you are most welcome."
Max Manus was a real Norwegian war hero who was credited for destroying multiple German boats and over a hundred German warplanes. His story is presented in loving detail by Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.
Early in World War II, Norway succumbed to the German advance with almost no resistance at all, a fact that didn't sit well with many of the young, idealistic men of the country. So they set about destroying everything Nazi-related they could find. Max Manus joined the movement after returning home from the Finnish frontlines.
Max (Aksel Hennie, Headhunters) and his friends start out small, running an underground newspaper in occupied Oslo. Since they're rank amateurs, it's not long before the Gestapo catches on. Max narrowly escapes capture by jumping out of a third-story window and is spirited away to Scotland by the more organized parts of the resistance for commando training. Once properly trained, he and his friends head back to Norway for some payback. They spend the next several years blowing up ships and files and traipsing back and forth across the carelessly unguarded border with Sweden.
But, of course, they lose close friends along the way, and each death hits Max like a personal failure, which drives him to drink more and dare higher extremes until he runs out of friends and is left gasping for meaning in his actions.
Despite the "War" in the title, Max Manus is not filled to the brim with action, tension, and/or explosions. Those things do exist, but there is a lot of down time between them. I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing. The film doesn't want to be a Hollywood summer blockbuster with quips instead of dialogue and more firepower than most nations' armed forces have on hand. It very clearly wants to be about something more, and it does succeed at that.
The film mostly wants to be about the consequences of war and the burdens placed upon those who fight in them. Specifically, that burden is "why him and not me?" According to this film, Max Manus became the most feared Norwegian in history in large part because he was really, really lucky. Which I suppose would have to be true for someone in his line of work.
It also wants to be about smaller things, like the humanization of your enemy in a time of war, and the evils of violence as a system of territorial control. And it throws in some romance to boot. Unfortunately, two hours isn't enough time to explore any of its secondary themes with much depth.
The film's biggest flaw is the lack Manus' claim to fame: sabotage. A movie about a master saboteur should have more than just two nail-biting, pulse-pounding, "are they going to get caught?" scenes, especially since the two scenes are basically identical and even more especially since you just know the second one will work because the names of Max's dead friends are scrawled on the bombs.
The rest of the film consists of Max trying to woo Tikken (Agnes Kittelsen,Happy, Happy), hanging with his friends while they plot, agonizing over everyone he knows dying or getting caught by the Gestapo, and having flashbacks to his time fighting the Germans in Finland.
Main Nazi baddie Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken, Inglourious Basterds) also gets a lot of unnecessary screen time as he tries to keep Oslo under his thumb while seducing his Norwegian secretary. It's almost as if the film wants to present Max and Siegfried as chess masters trying to outwit each other, but if that was the plan, it failed. Going on the logic that greater resistance must be met with still greater fear, Fehmer just orders everyone he catches to be tortured and/or killed. Although he has a police detective style suspect board, there are no nefarious plans aimed solely at capturing Manus. They could have cut a good forty minutes off the movie's 113 minute running time (or, better, used it to insert more sabotage scenes) by removing Fehmer's superfluous scenes completely.
Anyway, since the movie wants to be about all these other things, it's in its favor that the acting is very good across the board. Hennie doesn't really come across as your prototypical superspy -- he more resembles a cross between Steve Buscemi and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, if you can picture such a thing -- but once he gets into his groove, he is more than adequate for the role. Nicolai Cleve Broch (The Last Joint Venture) is engaging and charismatic as Manus' best friend Gregers and Killelsen displays a nice range. I just spent a paragraph complaining about his scenes, but Duken almost steals the show despite them. He owns the scene at the end where Fehmer and Max finally meet.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks great, and I really liked the lighting throughout; it gave the film an almost arty feel (only without the pretension). The sound is immersive, especially the war scenes, and makes good use of the subwoofer.
Extras don't exist. Nor, for that matter, does any sort of menu. The film goes through a couple of trailers and then starts the movie; pressing the "menu" button on the remote puts you back at the beginning of the trailers. I'm guessing it's because I had a screener version, and when you purchase yours you will find those missing pieces. But that's just a guess.
Max Manus: Man of War is a really good war film...when it decides to be one. It's too bad there isn't more war in it, but the rest is well acted and the characters are engaging. It's well worth your time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Norwegian)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated