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February 9, 2009

I confess. I was expecting the worst.

Bryan Singer’s last non-super hero movie was ten years ago (ironically, the nazi-tinged Apt Pupil), and I had begun to believe that he was only ever going to be able to hold up the even older Usual Suspects as his one decent movie. Plus, Tom Cruise as a one-eyed, one-handed German officer percolating a plot to assassinate Hitler? Did this look an even worse bet than Superman Returns? Well, be honest.

But the result is actually very very good. In fact, it’s significantly better than it has any right to be. Admittedly this has almost nothing to do with Cruise, who underplays his character as stoically unemotional throughout; it is Singer who pulls out all the stops, really, constructing a lean and efficient thriller which, like The Day of the Jackal, manages to keep its audience rivetted completely, despite the fact that we all know the ending.

This, then, is the July 20th plot, where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) attempted, with the help of a gang of high-ranking German officers, to not only kill the Führer, but also to initiate Operation Walküre, the plan to take control of German cities, disarm the SS, and arrest the Nazi leadership. Ultimately, the idea was to sue for peace with the Allies, possibly against the Russians.

Stauffenberg is shown at the start, writing in his journal, telling us the audience of his despair about the war, and the Nazi ideals. He sees himself as a committed German, not a Nazi, and believes that there are many others who feel the same. Injured in the field, he is returned to Berlin where – off screen, thanks to his uncle – he is introduced to the conspirators who have failed in their most recent assassination plot.

This is Brit Thesp a-go-go time, for the gang’s all here: Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally, Tom Hollander and they all do a bloody good job, to be fair. Best though is one of the German crew, the excellent Thomas Kretschmann, who I last saw as Captain Englehorn in Jackson’s King Kong. Here, he plays the exasperated head of the Reserve Army, trying to cope with the bewildering orders thrown up in the aftermath of the plot.

Singer’s real success here is to introduce us to a massive cast of players, provide them all with identifiable roles, and then move them around in such a way that it makes sense.

Cruise’s laudable intention to not make Stauffenberg into some sort of ultra-emotional shouty action hero (he only really raises his voice in his last, ahem, scene) is perfectly understandable, but it does make him more of a cipher than perhaps he needs to be or than we might want. He holds the film, and the conspiracy togeher by being the calm centre, but behind the steel you do, quite often, wish there was something more.

It’s a minor quibble really, because all told the star of this movie isn’t really Cruise anyway, it’s Singer, and his ability to choreograph all the parts coherently and with clarity, making a film that generates its own tension simply by the audience knowing that which the conspirators cannot.

Leave your prejudices at the door, Valkyrie is that rare thing, an action movie that engages the head as well as the heart, and doesn’t go for the easy options.

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