Do we call Anthropoid a thriller? Sean Ellis' earnest, day-ruining WWII bullet-a-thon is rooted in fact but comes on like pulp fiction in its first reels, hitting secret-mission story beats old enough to have served in the big war. As freedom fighters Josef (Jamie Dornan) and Jan (Cillian Murphy) skulk about 1942 Prague, cooking up a plan to assassinate the powerful Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, they face the usual suspense-building Hollywood silliness.
Every Nazi at a nightclub eyeballs them with drunk suspicion, for no clear reason. A stormtrooper comes this close to squinting into just the right place to discover the plot but forgets his suspicion at the sound of a riotously obvious distraction. And our handsome heroes find time to fall for a pair of young women (Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerová) who sympathize less with the boys' cause the more they know about it. When the romantic interests suss out the specifics of Operation Anthropoid — their beaus are set on killing Heydrich, the “Butcher of Prague,” third-ranking Nazi in the Reich! — out come the “Must you really go through with this?” speeches.
Aside from a tense standoff in an early scene, after the boys have parachuted into a Czech forest, Anthropoid's first 45 minutes play like by-the-book PG-13 spy stuff. It's the kind of movie where, even if you miss the ads, you can guess you'll be seeing Toby Jones.
But there are hints of the carnage to come — and Ellis' conflicted feelings. (The director co-wrote the script with Anthony Frewin.) One thoughtful Czech asks the boys to explain the point of the assassination: Won't it just result in more executions by the angered Nazis? Both leads seem more shaken than usual for a film like this — their hands are less steady, and they take turns throwing each other against the wall and demanding calmness.
And then that assassination attempt comes much too early for you to feel good about it — both in the boys' timeline and in the movie's running time. Ellis and editor Richard Mettler have shaped a mean, cutting sequence, its excitement quickly turning bitter as the bullets fly into a busy city street. The subsequent chase is harrowing, entirely at odds with the Hollywood rules the film seemed to be playing by. The Nazis retaliate, of course, hunting Josef and Jan and five other resistance fighters who have parachuted into Prague.
A scene of poorly judged torture sets up the ruthless, endless final showdowns: Do the filmmakers truly have to show us hammers crushing knuckles — and then a boy contemplating his mother's Fangoria-ready severed head in a bucket — to get us to appreciate the Nazis’ vileness? The last reels are all pinned-down small-squad combat agony, full of mass slaughter and cyanide suicide, shot and cut for clarity and impact. This is the first time, at the movies, that I've felt like the bastards were shooting at me since No Country for Old Men.
Here, they shoot much longer. It's all sickeningly accomplished, with incidents so tense and audacious that you might not have the headspace to wonder until afterwards, “Hey, wait, what was the point in grinding us through so many terrifying minutes of that?” The movie throws up its hands about what it all means — a title card just before the end credits announces that the Nazis killed 5,000 more Czechs in retaliation for Jan and Josef's plot.