Long has it been since the horrors of World War II have been cut apart and rearranged by the scalpel of pulp fiction, the last such notable attempt being Tarantino's rollicking romp, Notorious Bastards. While nowhere near as deliberately excessive, colourful and shocking as Tarantino's bold outing, Julius Avery's attempt is no less striking in its own right.
On the night of the historic Normandy landings, American paratroopers are dispatched to undertake a seemingly simple mission – destroy a radio tower, establish a beachhead, and clear the way for the Allied forces. After an explosive start, however, Pvt. Boyce (Jovan Adepo) finds himself abruptly and violently hurled into something far beyond his mission's parameters. Accompanied by the gruff, no-nonsense Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell) and a handful of survivors, their task takes a page out of pulp as they find themselves facing quite an extraordinary threat.
Overlord itself exists as a send-up to an age of entertainment that is almost forgotten in the field of film-making, the act of gleefully revising history and drowning it in a torrent of gratuitous violence, impossible occurrences, or both. In this case, it's the latter, as the all-American squad with its collection of predictable but serviceable personality traits – the nervous but eventually resolute fresh meat, the foul-mouthed loose cannon, the expendable tagalongs who don't have much relevance – find themselves pitted against a horde of horrors straight out of a Wolfenstein game, led by Dr. Wafner, who vacillates between being exceedingly invasive and creepy and downright deranged as Pilou Asbæk plays him with as much ham as he can muster while being the focal point of some of the film's goriest effects.
The plot is absolutely nothing to write home about, and even those not terribly familiar with WWII films will find themselves accurately calling off at least some of the plot beats and developments, even with the addition of supernatural elements. What Overlord lacks in narrative strength, however, it makes up for off the delightfully cheesy nature of its central premise and the action it affords. There's solid on-screen combat that takes place in the film's 110-minute runtime as Overlord rumbles forward on a slow burn with the script making a marked effort to at least attempt to get the viewers to care about the characters involved to varying degrees of success before exploding into a roaring third act where all of Overlord's positives truly come to the forefront. Julius Avery is no stranger to the concept of frenetic action sequences as 2014's Son of a Gun attests to; Boyce and his pals encountering creatures decidedly beyond the average grunt, in very confined locations to boot, results in some genuinely pulse-pounding encounters, helped further by some striking titbits of cinematography. For those who are wondering if the human element is neglected, fret not – plenty of regular Wehrmacht goons exist to be gunned down by the score, too.
However, while Overlord gets the action right, arguably one of the most important ingredients of a war film – certainly here at least, with the curious fusion of war and horror only being further enhanced by quite well-done bloodshed – this comes at a price. While hardly advertised as a tour de force, transformative feature, Avery's earnest outing is left thin on meat. The cast is far from offensively lacking in substance but is only given so much to work with. The score is not outstanding in most respects, the acting on display doesn't really rise above passable barring Asbæk, Adepo and John Magaro's performances, and in ways it feels as though the film plays its premise too safely with the much-advertised Nazi Shop of Horrors and its inhabitants ending up being somewhat seldom-seen. A shame, too, as it is strikingly well-designed and evocative of all the old stories of the deranged laboratories and sciences of the Third Reich. If you're willing to revise history to have your fun, go all out, I'd say – hesitation only proves to be a hindrance here, and if you're going to go all out, you may as well emulate Tarantino good and proper.
Still, Overlord proves itself a passable and rather enjoyable way to indulge in some mostly mindless action for a couple of hours, a solid enough tribute to B-movies and pulp fiction that is sure to satisfy their fans. It just ultimately ends up leaving little of a lasting impression, and in ways, proves itself quite plain. If it had a dash more audacity, perhaps that could have been averted, but Overlord is likely to become an amusing diversion of a footnote in Bad Robot's library.