Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movie Review: Valkyrie

Grade: C+

First there were the reports of problems onset. Then there were the rapidly shifting release dates. Then finally a trailer emphasizing Tom Cruise in an eyepatch and bad dialogue. Throw in popular anti-Cruise sentiment, and soon everyone was asking, "How much is Valkyrie going to suck?"

Well, it doesn't suck, but it's no triumph of cinema either. Any salvation lies in the fairly interesting story. Germans made fiften assassination attempts on Hitler, according to the movie's post-script. But in this attempt, the conspirators tried not only to kill Hitler, but to stage a coup using the Nazi reserve force, known as Valkyries. We all know the plan fails, remembering from history that Hitler kills himself. But what's amazing about the story is how close the conspirators really came. This wasn't some lone gunman attempt but a massive conspiracy involving top Nazi generals and colonels. When the plan is set in motion and the radio tower tries to figure out who is in charge, it's clear the plan could easily have worked.

Unfortunately, the movie does not do the story justice. With a step-by-step look at how the plan went down, the movie could been a type of heist movie - Ocean's Eleven with Nazis. Paul Verhoeven's film Black Book (from which Valkyrie borrows actors) proved Nazi movies could still be fun. But instead, director Bryan Singer treats his subject dead seriously, eye patch and all. There's too many characters and too little drama for the seriousness to pay off. So instead, the tone is an unfortunate middleground that plays more like a history lesson. Since Cruise tells anyone who will listen about the plan, we don't even get to see the double life of the conspirators pretending to be good Nazis. What should be a fun suspense movie has zero suspense until the plan begins.

If I fail to mention the name of Cruise's character, that's because this isn't the kind of movie where you remember people's names. In fact, I spent half the movie saying, "Who the fuck is that guy?" You see, the downside to showing a realistic conspiracy with lots of people involved...is there are a lot of people involved. But if you have trouble telling the good guys from the bad guys, the accents are there to help you out. Being an American movie set in Germany, most of the characters have British accents (of course!). But only the good Nazis. The bad Nazis (like Hitler) still get to have German accents. But the best Nazi of all, the heroic one to lead the day, can only be played by an American, Tom Cruise.

Cruise seems miscast here not just because he is the sole American, but because he plays the quintessential American. He plays not a character but a movie star, delivering ridiculous lines with the bravado of stars from the 1940s. There's no getting inside his character's head, and scenes with his family do little to humanize him. Like Wall-E's EVE, his focus is only on his directive. It's possible Cruise's performance was meant to match the kind of campy throwback the movie could have been. But since he seems to be acting in a different movie from everyone else, he's just one more distraction in this mediocre effort.

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