There is a tendency to pile on someone when they are down, and in the case of Tom Cruise it seems he may have abetted some of that with his freakishly self-righteous behavior in the public eye. His capital with his audience has been severely diminished, then, due to his public persona taking such precedence over his screen one. Add to that the incredibly risky and failing enterprise of his purchase of a stake in United Artists after his unceremonious release from his longtime production partner, Paramount. His first film for UA, Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs (2007) was a flop. His newest one, the troubled Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men), has had its release delayed a few times now. So what a pleasant surprise it is to report that Singer and Cruise deliver one solid thriller that could help launch Cruise back into critical favor if not necessarily commercial success.
The timing of this dark World War II-era drama's Christmas release is commercially ill conceived. Certainly, they have a film that I'm sure they believed had potential for some Oscars in the technical and story realm, which may explain trying to squeeze it out before the end of the year. Frequent Singer collaborator Christopher McQuarrie and cowriter Nathan Alexander have come up with an exciting script based on the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, on July 20, 1944, hatched by some of his closest officers. The problem is that, as we all know, they failed. It is hard to see how such a downer will succeed during the joyous holiday season. It's a shame really, because Tom Cruise is great in the role of the plot's ringleader, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
Frequently dismissed as a celebrity personality more than a true actor, Cruise is excellent in the part. Just like other larger than life movie stars like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Cruise is remarkably adept at using his public persona to inform and enhance his performances. In this case, the embattled Stauffenberg, carrying the full and sole responsibility for the execution of the plot, and then contending with the ramifications of its failure is not unlike the present Cruise, the embattled actor carrying the full and sole responsibility for the success of this film and United Artists.
Stauffenberg's self-righteous arrogance contributes to the implementation of his plan before his confirmation of Hitler's death, a significant blunder as it turns out. Unlike a Sean Penn or Robert De Niro, Cruise is no chameleon in this one, although he can be (see Tropic Thunder). For instance, there is no trace of a German accent in his performance. But Singer effectively dismisses the need for one in the opening of the film using an artistic effect reminiscent of a similar one that occurred near the beginning of The Hunt for Red October (1990).
Perhaps Singer is the best director to effectively interpret this story. Singer is an expert at servicing the entire cast in an ensemble drama, as is evident in The Usual Suspects (1995), and his two X-Men films, so that no one seems underutilized. Here he accomplishes that nicely, giving all the actors, such as Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, and Tom Wilkinson, their moments in the film. And the director brings some nice surreal touches to the film, often using the one-eyed Stauffenberg's glass prosthesis to induce a small touch of paranoia at inopportune moments.
Recalling some of the best conspiracy thrillers of the seventies, Valkyrie is a suspenseful film that should satisfy even Cruise's detractors. Hopefully, it will succeed commercially as well, saving the perpetually endangered United Artists and Cruise's career.
Valkyrie opens nationwide on Christmas Day.