One imagines someone walking into J.J. Abrams’ production company and saying “It’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but as a horror movie” — and then walking out with a deal to make “Overlord,” an erratic but entertaining thriller that starts as a World War II action drama and ends up in a really weird place.
It’s early morning on June 6, 1944, hours before the D-Day invasion, and a platoon of Army Airborne paratroopers have one mission: Get to a church that’s occupied by the Germans and take out the radio tower erected there — or otherwise the Allied troops won’t have the air cover they need at Normandy.
The mission is less simple when the Germans start shooting airplanes out of the sky, and doing significant damage to the one carrying our platoon. By the time it’s all sorted out — in a sequence that moves to a flaming plane to the French countryside in a way that’s both fluid and chaotic — the platoon is down to four men.
The one we’ve been following to the ground is Pvt. Ed Boyce (played by Jovan Adepo), an African-American soldier who, we’re told, was too gentle in boot camp. Also surviving the drop are the jaded but war-savvy explosives expert Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell), tough-talking Pvt. Tibbet (John Magaro), and nerdy war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker, from “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”). They get some help from Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a young woman from the village.
Chloe helps the four American soldiers, because she needs help fending off the German garrison’s nasty commander, Wafner (Pilou Asbaek, from “Game of Thrones”). Chloe also informs them there’s something else going on in that Nazi-occupied church besides radio transmission.
Director Julius Avery moves the action at a dizzying pace. The first half-hour, as the troops land haphazardly in France, is a maelstrom of combat confusion, leaving the audience off-balance as to which characters are going to survive the opening moments and which ones aren’t. It feels a bit like a first-person shooter game, with better effects.
In the second half, screenwriters Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) and Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) shift into full horror mode, delivering a kinetic story line that Avery augments with some impressive body-horror prosthetic and animated effects. It’s gross, but in a monster-movie kind of way that is more exhilarating than disturbing.
The talented ensemble cast mixes unknowns with kind-of-knowns so that no one has enough star power that the audience is sure he’s not going to meet a gruesome demise. There’s a certain freedom in that, because it means a filmmaker can keep the surprises going pretty much to the end.
Opens Friday, November 9, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, language and brief sexual content. Running time: 109 minutes.