Max Manus: Man of War
Biographical War Film, Straight Up

Let’s deal with expectations.

When I see DVD artwork with explosions, a glowering visage, and the name “Max,” well… you know what I think of.  And I think the producers know, too.

So let’s clear this up right away: Max Manus: Man of War is not a Mad Max-inspired Norwegian re-take on WW II Nazi resistance.  Not at all.  So invoking that image may be a no-brainer as far as marketing goes, but it’s also a bait-and-switch ploy.

In the first place, “Max Manus” is not a fictional character—or even a made-up name;  Manus was a real-life Norwegian military hero who only recently passed away.  In the second place, the film is not at all informed by the specter of Mel Gibson, though Manus was perhaps larger-than-life than any character Gibson has either played or the press has imagined him to be.

A twenty-something international adventurer and rogue, Manus first saw military action as a volunteer with the Finnish army in their brief war with the Russians at the outset of the WW II—and his recollections of that horror form the flashback framework for this biographical account of his anti-Nazi resistance work during the German occupation of Norway.

Aksel Hennie as Max ManusBouncing back and forth between Sweden (for safe haven), Great Britain (for training), and Norway (for, well, blowing things up), Manus proves to be the thorn in the side of Gestapo investigator Siegfried Fehmer.  (Yes, it’s true: “Max” is our protagonist, and “Siegfried” is our antagonist.)  As Manus’ compatriots drop one by one—either slain outright by the occupiers or captured and tortured—Manus himself only grows more fierce, grim, and determined.  And, yes, a little mad.

For his part, Manus manages to avoid capture and fatality through a little bit of luck—and a lot of chutzpah.  The one time the Nazis get their hands on him, when he’s still quite green and careless, he foils their plans by flinging himself out a window… which lands him in a hospital bed rather than a prison cell.  And we all know from which it is easier to escape.  In another close call—one in which Manus’ closest associate, Gregers Gram, is killed—Manus manages to be in Sweden at the right time… because he accidentally shoots himself in the leg.

I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything at all by dishing some of the details in this story.  This is one of those “true story” films which are so earnest in getting all the details “right” that much of the life gets sucked out of them.  Okay—so Manus is the most highly-decorated military hero in Norway’s history, and he’s one scary-smart and steely-cold character.  But that’s never the starting place for effective storytelling unless everyone buys into the setup.  (Granted, this is a Norwegian film made for Norwegian audiences in 2008; but I’m an American reviewer, and this is a 2011 DVD release for an American audience.)  So I never felt, while watching the film, that Manus’ legendary status was either earned or justified.  The entire film comes off as rather cold and clinical rather than awe-inspiring, and Manus strikes us as fairly ordinary.

At the same time, the film is always entertaining and clearly had the support of the entire nation in its making.  This is big-budget filmmaking that, stylistically speaking, fits in nicely with classic European war films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Zulu, or even Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far.  In fact, this feels like a British war film, long on fact, concise with the action, with lots of expository dialogue and not much in the way of emotion.

As a history lesson, the film is fantastic.  And performances are generally top-notch, though the casting (and even scripting) seems at times like the production was designed as a parade of “Who’s Who in Norwegian Cinema.”  Just as one for-instance, I’m sure that Norwegian audiences were thrilled at the inclusion of Viktoria Winge; but seriously: what, exactly, does the fictional character of Fehmer’s secretary add to the narrative but eye candy and empty sexual tension?

Still and all, if you understand what you’re picking up with Max Manus (and don’t mind reading subtitles), this is a pretty satisfying war film.  You won’t mind at all having invested a couple hours in it.

Max Manus: Man of War is unrated.  But given that this is war picture, with the requisite violence, call it a very restrained and reserved PG-13.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of Max Manus: Man of War.