Dec 27, 2008

Entertainment - "Valkyrie" challenges fans to rethink Tom Cruise

Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – It was an improbable plot hatched during World War Two and to match it on movie screens, Hollywood offered perhaps the most unlikely casting of a hero at the holidays -- Tom Cruise playing a German army officer.

Cruise, of course, enjoys All-American looks that helped send him to movie stardom playing heroic young men such as Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in 1986 movie, "Top Gun." As of late, he's been on a mea culpa tour to explain his odd behavior in recent years and to regain his good-guy image with fans.

The improbable plot was a plan by German officers to kill Adolf Hitler by placing a bomb near him at a top secret meeting, and the resulting movie about that attempt is "Valkyrie," starring Cruise as Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg who was at the center of the assassination attempt.

"Stauffenberg was unique, handsome, and Tom had a lot of the same attributes, besides the physical looks of the character," "Valkyrie" director Bryan Singer told Reuters.

"I look for similarities in the actor and the person and in that world -- you take all (Tom's) baggage away -- and you've got a good casting choice," he said.

But it didn't always seem that way to Hollywood watchers, and like most movies, "Valkyrie" did not make it from script to screen without some bumps along the way.

Its release, initially set for summer 2008 was moved several times before landing on December 25, leading industry watchers to wonder if problems with the film caused the delay.

The crew had difficulty getting permission to film at historical sites in Germany where Singer and Cruise wanted to shoot, although they eventually prevailed. And the film's big budget was cited by some industry insiders as one reason for the exit of Cruise's long-time business partner Paula Wagner from her job as chief executive of United Artists in August.

Yet, the biggest threat may have always been casting Cruise as a German army officer who fought for Hitler.

When pictures comparing the likeness of a Stauffenberg to Cruise began making their way around the Web in 2007, concerns arose that Cruise's squeaky clean public image would be further tarnished by playing a Nazi.

Cruise already had suffered publicity setbacks with his couch jumping incident on "Oprah" and verbal sparring with Matt Lauer of "Today." In fact, to polish his still tarnished image, Cruise was back on "Today" earlier this month admitting he "came across as arrogant" with Lauer.

But Singer, a self-described history buff, looks differently at the film and at Cruise as von Stauffenberg.

He sees the movie as a thriller, a genre Cruise mastered in the blockbuster "Mission: Impossible" flicks. Singer also views Stauffenberg as a true hero who tried to kill one of the 20th Century's most notorious villains.

"In the context of an assassination thriller ... Tom Cruise was a natural for this character," Singer said.

Audiences apparently agree. With mixed reviews and against stiff competition that included family films "Marley & Me" and "Bedtime Stories," as well as Oscar hopeful "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Valkyrie" held its own at box offices.

Early reports had the film taking in an estimated $8.5 million in ticket sales on Christmas Day, although its studio backer United Artists -- owned by Cruise, Wagner and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer -- had not issued official numbers.

"Considering the subject matter and level of competition, 'Valkyrie' did just fine," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media by Numbers.

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