We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
Structured as one big flashback Black Book tells the story of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) a Dutch Jew in hiding during World War II. When her cover is blown she reunites with her family to try to sneak out of the country--only to be ambushed by the Germans. The sole survivor of the attack one-time cabaret singer Rachel joins the resistance movement dyes her dark hair blonde and becomes Ellis de Vries. A chance meeting with nice-guy German officer Capt. Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) leads to both a secretarial job at Nazi headquarters (a handy place for a spy) and romance. But after Ellis discovers the truth behind the assault that killed her family things start spinning out of control with multiple betrayals and double-crosses threatening to destroy what little she has left. The majority of Black Book rests squarely on van Houten's slender shoulders--so it's a good thing she's up to the task. As lovely as any real 1940s screen siren she's also believably tough and resilient which is a good thing given everything Rachel/Ellis has to go through. Classier than the heroines of previous Verhoeven movies like Showgirls and Basic Instinct Ellis still shares a scrappy determination and sensuous femininity with her cinematic sisters and van Houten throws herself into the part without reservation (and in some scenes without clothes). Koch is both idealistic and pragmatic as Capt. Müntze--which makes him a noble counterpart to the odious Lieut. Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) whom Ellis is determined to take down. She finds an ally in fellow secretary Ronnie (a scene-stealing Christine Baranski-esque Halina Reijn) whose depths prove unexpected. Verhoeven is hardly known as a master of subtlety and Black Book is no exception. Why have one double-cross when you can squeeze in three or four? Why stop at a topless scene when you can show your heroine dying the carpet to match the curtains? Why use subtle scoring to enhance a scene's mood when heavy-handed musical cues can pound a moment home? But even with this tendency toward excess aside the movie has problems. The 145-minute running time throws off the pacing; in the final third there's a disconcerting sense of multiple endings. And ultimately there's a certain lack of suspense--since the film is set up as a flashback audiences know that Rachel/Ellis is going to survive no matter what's thrown at her. Black Book may be better than many of the other movies on the director's resume but it's still a Verhoeven flick through and through.