Blood. Gore. Guts. Nazis. These are things found in a whole host of popular video games these days. Throw in zombies and you have one of the most enjoyed features of the “Call of Duty” franchise. However, taking the genre road on screen with World War II hasn’t happened all that much. Well, “Overlord” is here to change that. There may not be zombies, but evil Nazis and scientifically created monsters? There’s no shortage of that. Produced by J.J. Abrams, this was initially thought to be another extension of the “Cloverfield” universe. It’s not that, but it’s still a high concept B-movie that dares you not to have a good time. High art, it is not, but a fun time at the movies? That’s certainly the case. Historical buffs will shake their heads. Everyone else will be applauding the guts, both figuratively and literally.
“Overlord” isn’t afraid to get its proverbial hands dirty. Though not as out there as some of the similar sounding video games like “Wolfenstein,” this is still a horse of a different color. Mixing action and horror, as well as war with monsters, the final product works surprisingly well. A lot of it has to do with tone. Too serious and it would seem ridiculous. Too lighthearted and it would be too silly to buy into. Abrams and the creative forces here find the perfect mixture.
Set right on the eve of D-Day, we’re introduced to a company of paratroopers preparing to drop behind enemy lines. Their goal is to help the invasion by destroying a radio tower. The soldiers include protagonist Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the brash Tibbet (John Magaro), the mysterious Ford (Wyatt Russell), and the supremely confident commanding officer Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine). Like so many other paratrooper squads, they miss their landing spot and end up scattered about. German soldiers abound as well, thinning their ranks.
When the survivors stumble upon a young French woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), they follow her to a town near the radio tower. Their hope is to rest and then take out the tower. That changes when they discover the German soldiers rounding up civilians and taking them somewhere to experimenting. The more Boyce and company find out, the more horrified they become. From there on, it’s a quest to destroy the tower, figure out what is going on, and of course, try to survive.
The actors in “Overlord” fall into clear archetypes, though it’s by design. Jovan Adepo is the deer in the headlights soldier who becomes hardened and heroic by the end. John Magaro is the wisecracker who always has a smart remark. Wyatt Russell is stoic and the man who knows what he’s doing. Together, they make a good group, even if none of the actors really stand out. Mathilde Ollivier lends a welcome female touch, but her character too often just moves the plot along. Magaro is best in show, but only by virtue of being where most of the jokes come from. Supporting players joining the aforementioned Woodbine include Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Pilou Asbæk, Iain De Caestecker, and more.
Credit to director Julius Avery for making this as grimy as possible. The script from Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith is undeniably high concept, but it needed filmmaking vision in order to work. Avery achieves this by leaning in to the mud and the muck. The yuck factor is high too, which could turn some off, but would they really be seeing this in the first place? In addition, he contributes a captivating opening aerial drop sequence, showcasing some blockbuster sensibilities. With a pounding score from Jed Kurzel, as well as cinematography from the duo of Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner, the technical aspects are solid. They all contribute to something that at turns seems like a vintage WWII picture, as well as at other times a true creature feature. Ray and Smith set Avery up with some secure pins, which he knocks down with ruthless efficiency. Had they trimmed the running time closer to 90 minutes, this would have been even more of a blast. The slight drag in the second act weighs things down, right when it should be getting good. They survive that flaw, but it is noticeable.
In an age where so many special effects are done by computers, “Overlord” thankfully includes some old fashioned gross makeup. The gore and viscera is a combination, but bloody practical effects are a staple here, especially in the third act. It’s not something that solely makes a film what it is, but it helps. The more we see an orgy of CGI, the more we can appreciate the good old fashioned stuff.
With Oscar season about to fully descend upon us, having something gnarly like “Overlord” to dig into is a nice appetizer. The classy main course will be here soon enough. For now, we can enjoy Nazis trying to make monsters and heroic American soldiers battling them. Abrams and company knew this would entertain and crafted it to do just that. Put any high art objections aside and this will be a good time at the movies.