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Valkyrie: Cruise is Back (Look Out, Hitler!)

A compelling story goes a long way. Cinematic elements such as quirky characters, witty dialogue, and stylish cinematography are often employed to distract the audience from deficiencies in the story, or sometimes replace the story itself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there is a simple joy that can be found from finding one’s self invested not in a particular character, but in the outcome of the whole narrative. Valkyrie works on that level— what makes the success of this movie even more surprising is that we basically know the outcome before we step in the theater.

Claus von Steffenberg is our good-looking noble hero, played by Tom Cruise, naturally. He detests Hitler, and wants to stop him out of duty to his country and family. He stumbles into a secret coalition of those who also want to stop him (played by such terrific British character actors as Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branaugh, Terrence Stamp, and more). A plan is concocted to use explosives to blow up Hitler. Seems pretty simple, right? Well, since we know from high school history that Hitler killed himself in a bunker, we know that an assassination scheme is doomed to go wrong somehow. However, the way in which the events unfold is extremely surprising, and despite knowledge of the film’s ending, the story holds a considerable amount of tension.

Christopher McQuarrie’s script drops us right into the middle of the conflict, and he does not develop the characters at all. From the outside, I imagine that hearing this would turn you off from the film. Instead, it works—according to the film, these men didn’t have a variety of deeply personal reasons for wanting Hitler gone. By removing the conventional action thriller motivations, it seems more realistic, otherwise the action would be interrupted by these “this is why I hate Hitler” speeches that are a staple of the genre and would meet genre expectations, but at the end of the day, do we need to hear why people hate Hitler? Isn’t it pretty obvious why Germans with no particular thirst for Jewish blood would see a country that has pissed off the entire world and is going to incur some gargantuan wrath, and immediately realize that one man is responsible?

The film dodges other conventions too—the heroes make mistakes, the villains are observant, and most of the action does not involve sneaking around with guns, but things such as waiting for someone to answer the phone or hoping a telegram is delivered. That’s the way thrilling events most often occur in real life, and this film is smart enough to realize this. After directing the completely brainless Superman Returns, Bryan Singer proves that film was the fluke in a career dedicated to thrilling drama and smart action, both of which are delivered in Valkyrie. And as for Cruise’s performance? Aside from one moment highlighting his handicap that borders on unintentionally funny, his star power, intensity and stern good looks work well for him here. He doesn’t deify his character, and even underlines the fact that his ego and stubbornness likely cost many people their lives. It’s his best performance as the hero of a film since The Last Samurai over half a decade ago, and between this and his hilarious turn in Tropic Thunder, hopefully audiences can forget his off-screen antics and go back to enjoying him for what he is: a movie star with a very impressive body of work.

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~ by russellhainline on February 5, 2009.

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