A blitzkrieg bop of blood, bullets and beasts on the eve of D-Day, Overlord is the best kind of movie monstrosity. (The title serves double duty as a Normandy codename and the sort of dark master whose bidding this film’s Nazis serve.) Whenever you think its current scenario is starting to suffocate, it scratches and claws a new airway — all the way to a rip-snorter ending that will easily sate the appetite of anyone hungry like the Wolfenstein.
That first-person shooter game of yore is a clear inspiration for this slimy-silly script from Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). It’s imbued with the filmic-nostalgia sheen that is producer J.J. Abrams’ hallmark and directed with relentless verve from the first frame by Julius Avery, making an impressive studio-gig debut.
Announcing itself with old-school newsreel supertitles and a threnody of Hitler rally audio snatched and grabbed like a Ministry sample, Overlord introduces us to a plane full of grunts about to parachute into Nazi-occupied France. Their mission? Take down a radio jammer atop a church to protect air cover for the Allies’ pending invasion on the beach. Their no-nonsense black sergeant, Eldson (Bokeem Woodbine), bellows this order even as the craft is bombarded by flak and fire ravages the fuselage.
Overlord lacks visual-effects sophistication during this prologue, but it compensates with a head-knocking wave of sound. Seriously: This movie sounds like a buzzsaw whispering sweet nothings into your ear. Whenever it drops away to silence, the ringing resonance is like that whiff of gasoline: You know it’s not good for you, but damn if it ain’t sweet.
The survivors are few. Alongside Eldson, there’s Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a wide-eyed black greenhorn private from Louisiana; taciturn explosives expert Ford (Wyatt Russell, who whittles non-performance to a new low of videogame cut scene line reading); wisecracking New Yorker Tibbett (John Magaro); nebbish photojournalist Chase (Iain De Caestecker); Jewish sharpshooter Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite); and Dawson (Jacob Anderson), a would-be author whose big-dream declaration leads to one of the film’s most brazen laughs.
Outnumbered and outgunned by Nazis, the soldiers seek shelter with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a feisty Frenchwoman forced into sexual submission by the local SS Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, doing his Euron Greyjoy thang in the threads of a Haupsturmfuhrer). But Chloe’s aunt has a, uh … real bad cough. There’s a weird animal carcass in the woods. And why are the Nazis torching so many bodies in town? Beneath the church, there is a more sinister, supernatural frequency — and only this ragtag crew can stop it before it’s broadcast to the world.
If you’ve seen the ubiquitous trailers for Overlord or have even an inkling about the occult-science history of the Third Reich, you know what kind of hell awaits our heroes. Body horror for all tastes, from exploding heads and skin-piercing clavicles to crimped flesh wounds and … well, that one lady Boyce finds in the church’s bowels. Kudos to production designer Jon Henson’s believably repugnant rendering of these barbaric chambers.
One pivotal scene involving the use of a mysterious serum reeks of suspicious convenience, and you’ve seen the “Are we the real monsters?” subtext in every other war movie. The personal story is most interesting through Boyce’s perspective. “There is no war there?,” Chloe asks of Louisiana. After a beat, he says “Not like this.” Adepo stood toe to toe with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences. Here, he lets us see Boyce gradually harden into a confident shot-caller — evoking the cadence and conviction of his sergeant in subtle ways while invoking his own need to influence. Boyce has also seen that thing Edward Burke spoke of back home too often … and he’ll be damned if he lets it happen here.
But make no mistake: Overlord is a film where suspense hinges on just what direction body parts might fly after a grenade detonated in someone’s mouth — a gruesome, gleefully entertaining B-movie berserker.