My main (and only big) problem with Bryan Singer's Valkyrie is the same problem I have with "movie stars" in general. For example, I believe that Tom Cruise is a very fine actor, or at least a generally underrated one, but since he's a Movie Star before he's an Actor (and yes, he is), I find it almost impossible to LOSE him in a role. Sean Penn gets lost in a role. He just vanishes! Johnny Depp does it a lot, too. (Or at least he used to before the Pirate flicks came along.) Julia Roberts as a Victorian Queen is still Julia Roberts to me, which is why I prefer those chameleon-ish character players like Gary Oldman and John Malkovich.
In other words, I never once (for a second) "bought" Tom Cruise as a grizzled, burnt-out, one-armed German army officer in the new wartime thriller Valkyrie -- but because he's a movie star who knows how to carry a flick, he still anchors the tale with a strong and crisp screen presence. And while, yeah, it is a little distracting to hear high-ranking German soldiers speaking with American, British and Irish accents, the simple fact is that Valkyrie is a very slick old-school-style adventure movie. In some ways it feels like a perfectly enjoyable mid-'50s war movie that's been re-made with only the finest in modern cinematic technology. The plot is pure potboiler, but the look is grade-A Hollywood.
The story is basic enough, although the execution is kind of convoluted: Seems that a large number of high-ranking German soldiers are sickened by what Adolf Hitler has done to their homeland, and they're intent on taking the lunatic down before things get even worse. To that end, a colonel called Van Stauffenberg (Cruise) is enlisted by a secret group of dissenters, and together they hatch a plan to blow Hitler up with a miniature bomb.
Although based on actual events, Valkyrie feels more like a slick and modern remake of some forgotten 1944 war flick than a fact-centric bio-pic -- but I for one found it fascinating (and reassuring) to learn that LOTS of Hitler's soldiers were disgusted by the man's brutality. Love Valkyrie or hate it, I think it's very cool that a new movie can remind us, hey, not all wartime Germans were Nazis, y'know.
The film is at its best when it's focused on the elaborate bombing scheme, a handful of unexpected detours, and its few tasty moments of tension and stress -- and not as strong when, for example, we're forced to spend time with Stauffenberg and his doe-eyed wife. These bits feel like extra character development that the flick simply doesn't need. Thanks to strong (if strange) casting, we have no problem buying these characters as desperate, angry, and willing to murder their own leader -- which makes the family bits feel like little more than push-button filler. And they actually work against the flick a little bit, as I think we should be accepting the Colonel as a desperate, ruthless assassin -- and not as a sweet, doting husband.
Another problem is that of the editing, pacing, call it what you like. One suspects that Valkyrie dealt with some late-minute editorial alterations, which halfway explains why, for example, Kenneth Branagh shows up early in the film, seemingly prepared to deliver a substantial role. His character then vanishes until late in the third act, which only serves to make us wonder where the guy's BEEN for the last 75 minutes. But hey, extra snips in one department can sometimes yield fruit in another. So while Valkyrie might have once been an overlong epic of some sorts, it's now been streamlined into a perfectly slick matinee-style war thriller. Singer still delivers shots, scenes, and sequences that indicate a whole lot of talent, and I'm betting that sometime soon he delivers his first true masterpiece. (X2 was close!)
As far as Tom Cruise goes, this one's pretty much win-win. If you hate the guy, you'll find enough in Valkyrie that you can poke fun of. If, however, you have no problem with the superstar, then you'll find his performance workmanlike, interesting, passable ... but hardly his finest stuff. I say it's worth seeing for its irresistible ensemble of character actors, a handful of really well-crafted sequences, and a truth-based story that simply deserves to be repeated.