Mega Review: The Spirit and Valkyrie - Both High-Energy and Surprising
by Kevin Powers
December 24, 2008
With a slew of movies vying for your attention this holiday and similarities in The Spirit and Valkyrie, I thought it'd be worthwhile to combine them into one "mega review." After all, The Spirit and Valkyrie both have blockbuster expectations - the return of comic wizard Frank Miller and the chance for Tom Cruise to prove his box-office mettle, respectively. This hype is certainly going to play against these two, since they end up in very different places. The Spirit is confidently not the next Sin City, and Tom Cruise actually proves the weakest link in Valkyrie. Nevertheless, both films are high-energy experiences, one more visual and the other more emotional, that are worth the $20 that Grandma sent you this Christmas.
The Spirit: Long on Energy, Short on Life
Directed by: Frank Miller
Kevin's Rating: 5.5 out of 10
It can't be said enough that The Spirit is not on the same level as Sin City oe 300. There are vast and deep differences beneath the surface that result in an altogether difference experience. The action and violence in first-time solo director Frank Miller's film has more camp than a boy scout retreat, while the storyline is as frenetic, fanciful and fleeting as a dream. The film is a slapstick and imaginative tale that, despite being visually engrossing, amounts to only a shell of a story, with little tangible or memorable form.
The story centers on a superhero-like ex-cop called The Spirit (Gabriel Macht), who seems to have more love for his city than the Sex and the City girls do for New York. And more lives than all the cats in his loft. The Spirit races over rooftops in his suit and trademark red tie, saving damsels in distress and saying things like "golly" and "oh brother." It's true, The Spirit has an oddball '50s-style to it, what with the fedoras and old cop cars, but it's certainly not a period piece - that's clearly evident by the typography and weaponry. It's a unique formula, and for the most part it succeeds in creating a rich, alternate universe. The campy tone comes across as fun in many of the artistic action sequences; like when the The Spirit tells The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), "I'm going to kill you all kinds of dead!" while fighting him in a muddy bog.
But there are also parts where it doesn't work. In the slower, more drama-aimed segments it can be very tedious, such as during the numerous flashbacks, or when The Spirit is talking to the police commissioner or flirting with the female doctor. Miller's incredibly styled fights and adventuring is just so compelling that it makes the rest of the film and it's campy storytelling feel anemic without it. And then there are parts that are just bad. In league with the Octopus, The Spirit's nemesis of equally indestructible composition, is Silken Floss, played by the usually enjoyable Scarlett Johansson. While everyone else manages to deliver their cheeky lines in the requisite retro good-vs-evil manner, Johansson delivers every line like an embellishing drama student. She's even more irritating than the perpetually smiling test-tube bad guy, played by the dumpy Louis Lombardi.
It's disappointing that The Spirit, given it's unique comic (and comical) temperament, won't find itself alongside the memorable Sin City and 300. With its inconsistent tone and overwhelming visuals, The Spirit is a film that manages the complex achievement of being stunning and forgettable at the same time, destined to be simply a haunt of the genre.
Valkyrie: Despite Cruise, A Taut Thriller
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Kevin's Rating: 7.5 out of 10
If you must decide between the two, Valkyrie may be the better choice since it's a more conventional, accessible thriller. However, don't expect Tom Cruise to redeem any industry clout in this one. Considering the star power of the man and his lead role, it's eye-opening that the supporting cast outdoes him to such a degree; and when you consider the overall math of the film, it can be said that Cruise proves a negligible addition. Not exactly what he and his troubled production company, United Artists, were hoping for.
To director Bryan Singer's credit, Valkyrie is one of the tautest films of the year. There is virtually no time spent on the characters before the main plot kicks into high gear - that of an inside job to assassinate Hitler. The subject matter is fascinating and very much based on real events. Singer's Valkyrie is not a half-hearted "inspired by" accounting, which gives the film incredible gravity. Seeing the character of Hitler on screen is equally weighty, especially since other WWII films of this year (and years past) shy away from direct depictions of the man (e.g. The Reader, Defiance). Singer's framing gives the character the needed drumroll and cloud of fear, which makes the assassination attempt all the more stomach-wrenching.
Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the young and motivated mastermind behind the plot to kill the Nazi leader at his remote headquarters, the "Wolf's Lair." The story's pace does Cruise no service, as his confidence and canniness feels too efficient and remarkably like his Ethan Hunt character from Mission Impossible. Any depth to Stauffenberg is coincidence at best and not the work of Cruise. On the other hand, those in league with Stauffenberg manage to weave a needed emotional layer that broadens Valkyrie beyond a just vapid blockbuster. While much of the supporting cast does a commendable job (e.g. Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Terrence Stamp, Eddie Izzard), it's Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbricht who is an absolute standout. Nighy's performance truly gives one the sense of hope and fear those involved in the assassination attempt must have felt.
While it's surprising that Cruise doesn't offer more to Valkyrie, the film is nevertheless a thriller in the truest sense. Not to mention, a historical tale, riveting in its ambition and consequence. And even though Singer's portrayal sits at a 30,000-foot view, especially in the finer details like language and accents, Valkyrie's strong supporting cast helps ground the film enough to give it true feeling and weight.