Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, Carice Van Houten
Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander
20th Century Fox
What do you know about Adolf Hitler?
Silly question, you say?
Okay, then. What do you know about Tom Cruise?
Quit rolling your eyes.
These two questions may be paramount in determining whether or not you are able to appreciate "Valkyrie," Cruise's latest starring vehicle in which he plays rebel Nazi officer and Hitler's would be assassin, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg.
Most, but certainly not all, people with any familiarity at all with World War II are aware that Hitler was not assassinated. Therefore, the notion of building a suspense/thriller around an event that we start off knowing failed is a bit unusual at the least.
If, by chance, you didn't know that Hitler wasn't assassinated...well, I've just ruined it for you.
"Valkyrie," directed by Bryan Singer, is based upon the true story of a group of rebel German soldiers who plot to assassinate Hitler and, most would acknowledge, come closer than anyone else to actually pulling it off.
Now then, back to Cruise.
How do you feel about Cruise these days?
Do you like him as an actor? Are you growing a bit weary of his shtick? Have his public antics of late turned you off a bit?
In other words, is there any chance you can watch Tom Cruise on the big screen and actually forget it's Tom Cruise?
Cruise reminded all of us with his Golden Globe-nominated performance in "Tropic Thunder" that he can definitely act...His performance in "Valkyrie" reminds us that too often he has relied on his natural tendencies towards intensity and focus disguised as acting.
I'm not saying that "Valkyrie" would have worked without Cruise...I am saying that Cruise is miscast, and "Valkyrie" would have been a better film without him.
Singer is partially to blame or, minimally, whoever convinced Singer to go with an American actor using an American accident to play a German office surrounded by English actors using English accents to portray Germans.
Make sense? No, it doesn't.
The weird thing is that the cast is actually a high quality cast and, had the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander bothered to focus a bit on character development, one might've forgotten about the whole accent issue.
Unfortunately, without characters to cling to it's hard not to sit in the theatre pointing out the film's flaws.
Cruise is the film's biggest flaw. Despite my being among those who are a tad weary of Cruise's antics, I've always been fond of the guy's acting. Yes, he only seems to have one speed, hyper speed, of intensity...but, Cruise has historically picked his films fairly well and a good 90% of the time he's quite well cast.
Here, however, Cruise is being asked to play a German Catholic aristocrat who grows weary of Hitler's antics and Final Solution. Cruise plays the Colonel more like a toned down version of his "Mission Impossible" films. Even Cruise's attempts at "acting" injured, which were so convincing in the wonderful "Born on the Fourth of July," are laughably bad here.
Seriously, isn't it a bad sign when the audience starts giggling at the eye patch that results from a war hero's loss of an eye during battle?
The supporting cast, despite their woefully off-the-mark accents, are significantly more satisfying.
Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson have the most opportunities to shine, Branagh as a major-general assigned with the harrowing task of getting the suitcase bomb into and out of Hitler's bunker while Wilkinson is a German general who plays both sides of the fence in an attempt to survive no matter what the outcome. While their characters aren't developed nearly enough, both actors give convincing, multi-layered performances that find places in their characters not apparent in the written word.
Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, Terence Stamp and Carice Van Houten also do a nice job despite not being given much to do.
Despite being immensely flawed, "Valkyrie" very nearly earns a modest recommendation from me largely on the strength of Singer's ability to build suspense even when we largely know the outcome. While the early scenes in "Valkyrie" suffer from the same "talky" quality that hindered Cruise's "Lions for Lambs," the film really picks up pace after the assassination attempt fails and in the scenes that follow.
While diehard Singer and Cruise fans may find modest pleasure in "Valkyrie," it's hard to fathom the film has much hope for a major box-office life considering it opens on Christmas Day alongside an Adam Sandler family film, an Owen Wilson/Jennifer Aniston touchy-feely film and a couple others.
Tech credits are solid, perhaps even the film's selling point. Action scenes, especially in the latter half, are suspenseful and well staged.
I'm not even remotely ready to give up on Cruise. As he proved in "Tropic Thunder," he's still capable of entertaining and original performances.
"Valkyrie" was simply the wrong film for Cruise, and given that it comes at a time when Cruise really needs to change his public perception it's even more of a disappointment.
Much like the assassination attempt on Hitler, "Valkyrie" should have been a surefire hit. Unfortunately, just as happened with Hitler, "Valkyrie" misses the mark and all that's really left is the thought of what might've been.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic