When he discovered that this movie wasn't going to be a look at Wagner's Ring Cycle, Judge Bill Gibron was depressed. When he learned it was actually a decent low-budget attempt at combining a comic book movie with the serials of cinema's past, our jaded jurist was a little less annoyed.
A guy and his robot vs. the Fourth Reich…The odds are about even!
It's 1942. The Nazis have developed a deadly virus consisting of microscopic machines—nanites—that turn the enemy into half-man/half-metal zombies. Hoping to combat the unholy plague, the United States asks Professor Jack Cranston, famed member of the Electric Club, to meld his unlimited power experiments with their plans for the ultimate fighting automaton. He reluctantly agrees, develops the droid, names it Valkyrie, and imbues it with an infinite knowledge of martial arts. As they head off to battle the rotten Third Reich, all Allied hopes rest on this robot's broad metallic shoulders.
Fast forward a few decades and Cranston's grandson, Jim, is looking to pawn his deceased relative's belongings. In pretty deep to a bookie named Foley, he has one week to come up with the dough or he's dead. Discovering Valkyrie, Jim sees dollar signs. But when he rebuilds the iron man, he realizes it's a far more valuable pile of scrap. When the skinheaded Neo-Nazi brother of a local lounge singer goes missing, he's linked to a rash of race-related murders. Anne wants to find her sibling, while Jim wants to figure out a way to make Valkyrie payoff. When an evil Nazi zombie resembling Anne's brother attacks the local D.A., Jim suddenly finds himself in the middle of the ultimate battle between unspeakable evil and a bucket of bolts from six decades ago.
Overwhelmingly ambitious and loaded with potential, Project: Valkyrie is a victim of its own unbridled imagination. Anyone attempting a full-blown comic book movie in the style of a certain Sam Raimi on a budget that would have made the original Evil Dead look like Waterworld deserves credit for trying. Still, the amazing thing about Jeff Waltrowski and Steve Foland's post-modern take on the big screen serials of the '30s and '40s is how often it actually works. Sure, the production values can deviate wildly, looking positively professional one moment and horribly hackneyed the next. The acting is also uneven, pitch perfect in some instances, precariously problematic at other times. Of course, all of this is to be expected from a feature made on a filmstrip's budget, but that doesn't deter these innovative and inventive filmmakers from fulfilling their vision, aided most ably by a group of like-minded friends and well wishers. Thanks to the amount of narrative detail and in spite of the sequences that stink of simple self-indulgence, what could have been a horribly misguided venture into nonsensical nostalgia almost stands on its own. Almost. There are still some issues here that need to be cleaned up—or cast off completely—before the retro-robot Valkyrie and his war against virus-spitting Nazi monsters (that's right, Nazi monsters) becomes an endearing superhero icon.
It is clear that Waltrowski and Foland know their references, from a certain Spider's man to the hopelessly underrated Hellboy. They helm homages to The Rocketeer and riff on all the Undersea Kingdom/Radar Men from the Moon cliffhangers that shaped a day at the movies during the Depression. Especially effective is the opening monochrome material that captures the look and feel of the era incredibly well. What doesn't work, however, are a couple of completely unnecessary sequences. In one, our half-assed protagonist (played by Foland, who would probably argue he was using his entire rounded rump) spends an inordinately pointless amount of time teaching Valkyrie to play some manner of schoolyard punching game. It just goes on and on, and never pays off in the end. It feels like the actors simply forgot their lines and decided to ad-lib this on the spur of the moment. They should have fought that urge. Equally unnerving, at least at first, is the entire Neo-Nazi angle. There are a couple of nauseating, non-PC moments, and our lumbering lead even tries to make an ironic point about prejudice by calling out Anne, his crooning companion. It's more hurtful than humorous. Granted, Foland's performance overall (he handles the champion role alongside the robot) is so problematic that we never really believe anything this lame brain does. He's the sole weak link in an otherwise solid casting call.
But there's another major problem here—a great big fat rap one—that constantly yanks us out of the experience and into the realization that this is still a homemade movie. In perhaps the most perplexing aesthetic decision these filmmakers could consider, they offer up horrendously atonal nu-metal noise as their dramatic underscoring. That's right, as characters confess their innermost fears and rev up for a brazen battle royale, some Fred Durst dipstick with a rhyming dictionary destroys the English language with his hard-rock-backed bullcrap. These hate-hop moments featuring Caucasian artists who set this African-American art form back about 40 acres and a mule just ruin the mood and tone of this tale. We are supposed to be invested in our hapless champion, his more than capable chanteuse, and the android who craves to kick Hilter hinder. Instead our ears are assaulted by some literally "dope" drivel. If you can overcome these inexplicably insipid ideas, if you don't mind having your movie marred by Vanilla Ice wannabe's waxing semi-poetic about hos and handguns, then you will instantly enjoy Project: Valkyrie's epic scope and easy entertainment values. Others will have to handle these hurdles before reaching the promised land of indie-film fun.
This is a very unusual title for Tempe, a company mostly known for horror retreads, splatter-laced macabre comedies, and the occasional slip into sloppy sci-fi. Handling an old-fashioned action-adventure yarn—granted, one containing zombies, chainsaw murders, and lots of groovy gore—is a relatively new move for the off-brand business. As a result, they do a delightful job of transferring the film to DVD. The 1.66:1 non-anamorphic letterboxed presentation is colorful and detailed, with only the occasional editing mishaps—and the lack of a 16x9 dynamic—messing with the image. The sound, including the aforementioned god-awful din, is expertly captured in a Dolby Digital Stereo. The overall balance between dialogue and ancillary aural elements weighs heavily in favor of the effects side, but this is still an effective ambient experience.
When it comes to bonus features, Tempe attempts to totally trick out the digital package. Along with a blooper reel (hilarious), a 25-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (engaging, if just a tad self-serving), a wonderful short film by Waltrowski centering on the Electric Club (really outstanding), and a selection of trailers, we get a full-length audio commentary from Waltrowski, Foland, and creative crew member Jacob Ross. Floating between self-deprecation and congratulation, this narrative track explains away several mistakes, highlights the films and filmmakers cribbed from, and generally supplements the storyline with anecdotes about individual personalities and production problems. If you listen carefully, you can still hear the unabashed back slapping, but at least the trio admits when Project: Valkyrie stumbles.
When you consider the amount of imagination and originality it took to bring this basic idea to the no-budget camcorder domain, you have to stand up and cheer for Project: Valkyrie. It triumphs more times that it trips, and if it weren't for a couple of sideswiping miscalculations, this would be a near-flawless work of outsider cinema. As it stands, it's wobbly, but well worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
• Full-length Audio Commentary by director Jeff Waltrowski, writer/director Steve Foland, and crew member Jacob Ross
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