2 1/2 stars out of 4
With November's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," next month's "Defiance," this week's "The Reader" and "Valkyrie," Hollywood shows us that the supply of stories about World War II is virtually endless. It was the last war where Americans were clearly victorious and have always been perceived as the good guys.
There are no American characters in "Valkyrie" and, with the notable exception of "Schindler's List," it might be the only story set in World War II where a Nazi is the protagonist. The Nazi here is Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), an aristocratic German patriot who, along with a few enlightened fellow countrymen, recognized Adolf Hitler was not their leader but rather evil incarnate. Roughly 15 people or groups attempted to assassinate Hitler before he eventually committed suicide, but it was this one on July 20, 1944, masterminded by von Stauffenberg that was the last and got the closest to getting the job done.
The three release date changes and innumerable reports of behind-the-scenes infighting have taken its toll on the final cut. While impeccably filmed and generally well-acted, the movie shows all the signs of a troubled production. If the film doesn't at least break even, it could sound the death-knell for United Artists (now owned and operated by Cruise) the industry's oldest independent studio.
As producer, Cruise's best initial commercial move was casting himself as the lead. Do a Google search and you'll see the striking visual similarities he has to the real von Stauffenberg; they could be twins. However, Cruise's performance is mostly perfunctory and stiff, especially when measured up against those of older, heavy-hitting character actors with whom he shares the screen.
Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson play Nazi higher-ups who have varying degrees of commitment to the assassination plot, but only Wilkinson makes much of an impact. This isn't because the actors themselves don't have the goods; it's the screenplay co-written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander.
While keeping the facts straight and often spoon-feeding the plot to the audience, the writers fail to give the characters much zip or distinguishing traits. It's dry and to the point and for most of the first half, practically sleep-inducing.
Director Bryan Singer (McQuarrie's collaborator on "The Usual Suspects") and his design staff go far to make up for the lack of storytelling punch with stunning visuals and a handful of well-choreographed crowd scenes. The opening sequence - a battlefield scene set in North Africa - is particularly impressive.
In this same scene, Cruise's character begins speaking in German and slowly morphs into English. It's a not-so-clever device that alerts us that we're watching a movie. Cruise's non-attempt at even trying to fake a German accent only adds to the stagey feel. Using subtitles in a major motion picture isn't the most advisable commercial move, but it lends any production greater authenticity and believability. For further proof, just take a look at 1970's best picture winner "Patton."
Given Cruise's past-prime age and the likelihood "Valkyrie" will underperform at the box office, he should consider making that often uneasy career shift from leading man to character actor. He did just that in "Tropic Thunder," and it garnered him a Golden Globe nod. He's had more than his share of the limelight, which is a lot considering his modicum of real acting talent. (MGM/UA)