If nothing else, the historical action drama Valkyrie proves that Tom Cruise isn’t necessarily a bad actor--but he’s often very poorly cast. Even before it hit theaters, people were starting to suspect something was off about Valkyrie. For starters, director Bryan Singer’s glossy take on Col. Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler during the waning days of World War II cast celebrated couch-jumper Tom Cruise in the lead role.
Stauffenberg is something of a folk hero in Germany, a martyr to the cause of the resistance, and few there took kindly to an American interpreting the role. On top of that, Cruise is a Scientologist. In Germany, Scientology is not regarded as a constitutionally protected religion but as a dangerous moneymaking cult. So ... chances are the film won’t be the opening night gala at the Berlin Film Festival.
Cruise tries hard here, but a husky whisper and an eye patch is no substitute for actual gravitas. Oblivious to the miscasting of his main actor, Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, Superman Returns) forges ahead, eager to play in the big, tank-filled sandbox that is World War II. Unfortunately, the film is a mostly unengaging affair. There’s an interesting story in here somewhere, but screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote The Usual Suspects and not much else) & Nathan Alexander (who has no previous credits) have failed to crack this nut.
The mechanics of Stauffenberg’s plot are rather dense (something about blowing Hitler up with a bomb then exploiting a shadow government intended to consolidate power in Berlin in the event of an invasion in order to stage a coup). The main problem, though, is that we already know the outcome of this story. Hitler wasn’t assassinated, so it’s no surprise to find him miraculously surviving the events unfolding in this film. Singer manages to build up some decent tension in the chaotic wake of Stauffenberg’s bungled bombing, but we know it’s not going to last.
The script tries to make Stauffenberg and his conspirators out as unsung heroes of history. Undoubtedly they were. But here they seem like a disorganized bunch at best--mounting a coup against Hitler simply because he’s losing the war and missing several attempts to kill the guy due mostly to overeagerness. Thanks to a couple token domestic scenes, we know that Stauffenberg loves his wife and kids, so he must be a nice guy. But that’s about it for character development and back story. As far as Stauffenberg’s co-plotters, we’re familiar with their names and little else. That bodes poorly for audience sympathy. It’s hard to root for people we know nothing about.
Cruise aside, the rest of the cast is taken up by more credible, but less Germanic actors from England (Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard). What, the casting director couldn’t throw a bone to Udo Kier? In recent weeks, Singer has performed a series of awkward backbends attempting to defend his employment of patently non-German accents, but the bottom line is this: It doesn’t help immerse audiences in the setting.
Singer is usually at least good with a camera, but the cinematography here is surprisingly dull, making the entire film look as if it were covered in a layer of dust. Yeah, yeah, war isn’t a pile of rainbows or anything; but this is just drab.
There’s a good film buried in Valkyrie, but there are far too many elements conspiring to drag it down. It’s a well-acted drama staffed by credible thespians, every one of whom looks out of place. It’s a suspense thriller, the entire outcome of which we know before the opening credits roll. And it’s an explosive war movie confined almost entirely to backroom political machinations. War can be a lot of things to a lot of people. Boring shouldn’t be one of those options.
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