Jan 13 2010

Valkyrie

After seeing the film Inglourious Basterds, I found I had a craving for more films focused on antagonizing the Nazis.  As such, I thought it would be great to spotlight a recent film that many people missed, Valkyrie, and possibly compare it to Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece a bit as well.  Valkyrie, the collaboration between Bryan Singer and Tom Cruise, was meant to be Bryan Singer’s small film but became a bigger budget spectacle once Cruise became attached.  Turned off by the lack of accents (I’ll get to this later, don’t worry), many people didn’t end up seeing this movie, and it’s considered to be a box office failure.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth a rental.  Let’s take a look at it.

For a while I thought Bryan Singer could do no wrong.  First, he was responsible for the first two X-Men films, which at the time were among my favorite comic book adaptations ever made.  Then I went back and looked at his previous work, which of course included the classic The Usual Suspects and the lesser known gem Apt Pupil.  And let’s not forget he helped create and was very involved with one of my favorite shows, House.  While I hadn’t seen everything he’d done, everything I’d gotten a hold of seemed to be good.  I was disappointed when he left the X-Men series to do Superman Returns, but wasn’t as disappointed with the actual product as many were.  I think he achieved what he was trying to do, and it was overall an enjoyable film, just not really the film I wanted to see out of Singer or Superman.

On to Valkyrie.  Even though most people seemed uninterested, I trusted that Singer would make something that was at least worth watching.  Nevertheless I missed it in theaters and haven’t been able to get to it until now.  The film is about a group of German conspirators who want to prove that not all Germans are evil by assassinating Hitler and performing a coup of the entire German government using an emergency plan called “Valkyrie.”  Alternate history this is not, so it’s no spoiler to say that they fail.  While their plan is complex and sometimes hard to follow (the technicalities of how these German laws work are explained, but don’t entirely make sense), the plot is actually relatively simple.  The movie splits into two distinct halves, the one where they’re setting up their operation, and the one after it begins execution.  The relatively predictable and laborious nature of the plot is probably the film’s greatest failure, while it loves to put as much suspense in our hands as it can, it usually fails because we know the outcome politically, and therefore can figure out for the most part how things will work out for the characters too.  Still, there are some great intense scenes that appear so largely due to proficient directing from Singer.  And once things get going in terms of the operation itself, the momentum does pick up.

The characters themselves aren’t particularly fascinating, we’re not given the motivations of almost any of them beyond Tom Cruise.  Essentially you come across officer after officer willing to commit high treason without any explanation of why.  All the actors are doing their best to do their “regal officer” characters, most of which have played similar roles in past films, and they all carry great presence but none manage to make these feel like people for me.  Even Tom Cruise’s character is too cold to care about that much.  The only thing that makes his character work at all is the fact that we’ve been exposed to his family.  There’s a particularly moving scene involving a bombing nearby their home set to the source music of “Ride of the Valkyries”.  But this scene, even in its great quality, actually feels slightly out of place in the rest of the film which normally depicts men arguing in rooms.  I’m all for talking heads but I prefer when they’re in service of character, or at least plot.  Many of these scenes seemed to be running circles of “should we do it”, “who should do it”, and “who won’t do it.”

The main sticking point for most people on this film is the accents.  Bryan Singer decided that it made no sense to have characters speaking English in a German accent because it’s not reality whether there’s an accent or not, the reality would be if everyone was speaking German.  And there’s the problem.  It’s so incredible in Inglourious Basterds that every character speaks exactly in the language they would logically speak in at any given time.  To contrast it to this film, which luckily for its sake, was released before Basterds, makes Valkyrie feel a bit cheap and awkward.  It also makes it difficult to get a grasp on the characters, they really feel like British and American people instead of Germans as they should.  I have to say though, I understand Singer’s point, and getting to have all these great actors without the awkwardness of fake accents is something that might be worth the tradeoff.  I mean this is a fact that allows us to have the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard (in a dramatic role no less), Kenneth Brannagh, and Terrance Stamp in the film.  You don’t see such a powerhouse of stodgy British acting often.  The actors themselves, Tom Cruise especially, get criticized for the lack of accents, but I think even Cruise manages to do a decent acting job around this problem.  There are some decent layers to his performance.  I’d say this is something that once you get into the movie, stops being a problem.

But that leaves us with the question of whether you can get into the movie at all.  I think my honest answer is that I never really did.  It was a well made movie, there were interesting things going on, and there were good actors doing about as well as they normally do, but it never became more than the sum of its parts.  And most importantly, it never grabbed me.  When you compare it to Inglourious Basterds, which not only grabs you, but grabs you by the throat and puts a clamp on your heart, you have an incredibly inferior film.  While both films are largely talking heads, Inglourious Basterds manages to take its experiment in intensity and ratchet it to 11 in a way that Valkyrie never is able to.  I have to say that unless you’re a die-hard Brian Singer fan, there’s not much reason to seek out this film.  It’s not a bad two hours, but there’s better things out there.

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