“Black Book” is what you get when you combine the best known of Paul Verhoeven’s previous films into one explosively confused state of awareness — the unbridled violence of “Starship Troopers,” the plot twists of “Total Recall,” the seductiveness of “Basic Instinct,” the indestructibility of “Robocop” and the shamelessness of “Showgirls.” The product can only be described as a cinematic collision of genres that somehow assumes the likeness of a WWII melodrama.
In the film, Carice van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a Dutch Jew who joins the resistance against German Nazi forces stationed in occupied Holland. After her family is mercilessly gunned down on an escape mission, she adopts the alias “Ellis de Vries” and finds her way into a Nazi intelligence office. She lands a job under love interest Ludwig Muntze, who turns out not to be so bad … for a Nazi. Rachel then begins to investigate the plot behind her family’s murder — which was apparently the result of a concerted effort by traitors on both sides to conceal what they had stolen from their wealthy Jewish victims. While Muntze is accused of making deals with the resistance, Rachel is accused by both sides of being a double agent. What follows is a fight for survival that takes place on hilly moral terrain.
“Black Book” is best described as wasteful, even (and especially) during the more entertaining scenes in the film. While perhaps slightly more sophisticated than Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” Verhoeven grossly understates the historical moment of the film in favor of overdramatizing the narrative. Even the dialogue seems to move us prematurely from one scene to the next; it remains underdeveloped and inferior to the individual plot elements of the film. Instead, we are meant to indulge in gunfire, bloodshed, gratuitous nudity and other “Verhoevanescent” displays that are as contrived as they are ostentatious. Simply put, our director lacks the boldness of directors like Tarantino.
Verhoeven’s directorial exploits of the past 20 years are evident here, in that “Black Book” offers the tropes of Hollywood aesthetics, but without much contemplation. If you strip away the period-film exterior, you are left with a classic case of “hot girl strikes back.” Rather than craft a complex character with an intriguing backstory, the film gives us a glamorous female lead who — in her constant suffering but pertinacious nothing-to-lose attitude — dodges bullets (or do they dodge her?) and jumps from a second-floor balcony while fighting the onset of an insulin-induced coma. (In fact, she probably accounts for one of the two stars I gave this film). Between these death-defying moments of chance, there are fleeting reminders that, “Oh yeah, there’s a war going on.”
Also worth mentioning is that the film is entirely a flashback. Our female leads, Rachel and coworker Ronnie, meet (by chance, if you can fathom that) 12 years later on a kibbutz in Israel. After a brief introduction, we abandon 1956 altogether, only to return minutes before the credits roll. In the last shot, Israeli soldiers are taking their defensive positions on the kibbutz (think Suez Crisis). Is this a disingenuous claim to the themes of war and human suffering, or a casual commentary on current events? Without a justification for the flashback device, Verhoeven’s message risks being superficial in refusing to connect past and present.
“Black Book” boasts a message that is difficult to unpack and a visual language that is both transparent and formulaic. As a comeback film, it may not be such a bad attempt, but for everything that Verhoeven puts into the film, it is decidedly underwhelming. He is far too concerned with the fireworks of Hollywood cinema — breasts and bullets alike — to harness anything much deeper than a visceral response.