There’s a moment, just before its midpoint, that Anthropoid glistens with a hint of greatness. Riding an uneven first hour into its oddly-timed climax, the potential thematic depth of Sean Ellis’ WWII thriller almost coagulates into something sticky, dense, and worthwhile. But rather than a moment of transcendence, like reaching the summit of a mountain, it more resembles the moment just before a rollercoaster plummets. Everything that comes after is loud, jarring, and exists solely on the level of roiling one’s guts. After an hour establishing characters, settings, and themes, Anthropoid almost completely collapses into nothing but a guns-blazing action movie – and isn’t even terribly compelling as a self-contained sequence to boot. It begins as Michael Mann; it ends as Michael Bay.
Operation Anthropoid was the plot led by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, with the assistance of their hosts in London, to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich (played here, albeit briefly, by spooky lookalike Detlef Bothe) was among the critical figures of the Nazi regime (the film’s portrayal of him as Hitler’s “number 3” oversimplified if not inaccurate), an evil and terrifying person who earned his reputation as the “Butcher of Prague” while ensuring that occupied Czechoslovakia remained an orderly source of armaments production for the Wehrmacht. The mission was spearheaded by two agents, Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan, well-cast) and Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Muirphy, also well-cast), parachuted into the Czechoslovak countryside behind enemy lines with little but a single-minded determination to see their mission through. Do they succeed? Read a book!
The film Anthropoid struggles mightily to avoid cliches, but succeeds less often then it fails. Sepia-toned everything? Check. Shakycam™ for faux-verisimilitude? Check. Anglophone actors playing non-Anglophone characters by speaking goofily-accented English? Czech. Not that everything fails: there is the focus on operations, the oppressiveness of occupied Prague, the interrogation into the unknowability of identity and belief. There is the surfacing, if deeply unsubtle, of some of the maddening moral questions raised by it all. Anthropoid has all this going for it. In other ways, it hints at things it cannot quite accomplish. The earlier reference to Michael Mann was deliberate; Ellis clearly tries to echo some of Mann’s key themes about men and work, violence and society. But Anthropoid never figures out how to be about men but not for men, about how the women in men’s lives interact in complex ways with the clashing space between masculinity and modernity without creating female characters who clearly only exist for that purpose. That several moments of the film seem clunkily designed to preemptively refute this criticism: it not only fails to refute it, but exacerbates the harm done when it goes about fridging its women in sad and predictable ways. Especially sad since both Anna Geislerová (actually Czech!) and Charlotte Le Bon (uh, Québécois, for reasons) make so much out of the material they’re given.
The concluding half of Anthropoid is doubly disappointing – once for what it is, and again for what it could have been. Its setting is so rich, the questions its story raises so acute, and the performances so universally compelling that to throw it all away on Hardcore Henry 1942 is embittering. Placing the attempt on Heydrich at the midway point of the film’s running time dangled aspirations of challenging the three-act structure in favor of something which could elevate the themes and challenge our assumptions of interpreting history (a ring, perhaps?). Instead, they just needed to wedge fifty minutes of Easy Mode NPCs getting mowed down in Endless Mode.
Anthropoid deserves kudos for staying true to its source material (though, frankly, this is one of those times when history was so interesting you’d be a fool to mess with it too much), but loses sight of what really matters. That the seven resistance fighters held their position for six hours is indeed interesting, that doesn’t mean we needed to see it transpire in something that feels like real-time. Our heroes were foredoomed, something firmly telegraphed by Anthropoid’s mood and its general lack of subtlety. At a brief moment, cutting away mid-gunfire to dispose of a secondary character (Toby Jones), Anthropoid feels like it might have finally disciplined itself to open its story wider in its final moments, rather than narrow. But no – the consequences of our protagonists’ actions are relayed to us almost entirely through lazy intertitles. Anthropoid isn’t bad. It’s something worse – a waste.