Sunday, December 5, 2010

CRUISE CONTROL: a review of "Knight and Day"

Screenplay Written by Patrick O'Neill
Directed by James Mangold
** (two stars)

I think Tom Cruise has received a raw deal.

In the arena of public opinion over the course of the last five years, Tom Cruise has taken a beating resulting in diminishing box office receipts and even the amount of films he has even appeared in. I honestly cannot understand why the hatred and venom has reached, and maintained, to such an intense degree. When looking at the exploits of celebrities in our current culture, what Tom Cruise has done is relatively minor and in my eyes, not worthy of the disgust I have heard in the voices of every day people, primarily women, when they say, “I will NEVER see one of his movies ever again!!” Let’s see, this is what we know, he jumped on a couch and said some truly unsympathetic and stupid remarks (which he has long apologized for) to Matt Lauer…in 2005. Wasn't that it? (Let's not even get into Scientology because it really doesn't matter anyway.) In comparison, Mel Gibson went on a variety of drunken, sexist, racist rants, the kind of which he should never recover from but it seems that people are still willing to perhaps give him a pass where Cruise continues to receive no sense of public forgiveness.

Now, dear readers, this preamble is not designed for any of you to pull out your collective of tiny violins and play a mournful tune for the public descent of Tom Cruise. All I am trying to say, is that the level of outrage is something I have never fully been able to comprehend especially as he has continued to be one of the few mega stars who continuously delivers with his performances, takes creative risks and absolutely never phones in the work. He is as committed to the craft and joy of movie making as he has ever been.

Since 1996, he has shown growth through giving rich, soulful performances in challenging material. Additionally, he has been able to command the respect of top filmmakers from no less than the late Stanley Kubrick (1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut”), Paul Thomas Anderson (1999’s “Magnolia”), Cameron Crowe (1996’s “Jerry Maguire” and 2001’s “Vanilla Sky”), Steven Spielberg (2002’s “Minority Report” and 2005’s “War Of The Worlds”), Edward Zwick (2003’s “The Last Samurai”), and Michael Mann (2004’s “Collateral”). Since his public fall, his 2006 third installment of his “Mission: Impossible” series, directed by J.J. Abrams, was easily the best chapter. He even took on a critically well received smaller role as a Republican senator in Robert Redford’s uneven political diatribe, 2007’s “Lions For Lambs.” Yet, it was Cruise’s masterful (and masked) comedic role in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder” (2007) that surprisingly afforded him a bit of a reprieve, that didn’t last terribly long. Yes, yes, yes…I know, enough with the filmography. But, I, again am trying to illustrate ad showcase the work, the determination and the quality of what he has continued to deliver to audiences.

So, now, we arrive with Director James Mangold’s “Knight and Day,” a serviceable and entertaining action comedy that will undoubtedly not do terribly much to ingratiate Cruise back into the hearts of moviegoers or alter anyone’s perceptions about him as he plays yet another cocksure whirlwind of a man, who flashes that megawatt smile any chance that he is able. I am certain that people will perceive this role as yet another blast to a massive ego desperate to win back the hearts of former fans. That may possibly be true, but with Cruise, there is almost always something else at hand. And while I do think that “Knight and Day” is perhaps a bit more clever than it appears to be, it is ultimately a MOR movie, one that does work very hard to actually achieve so very little.

Cameron Diaz reunites with Cruise for the first time since “Vanilla Sky” as June Haver, a small town woman who lovingly restores classic cars, on her way back home to Boston from Wichita and in preparation for her sister’s wedding. Unbeknownst to June, is that she is being watched closely by Roy Miller (Cruise) a super secret agent on the run. After two “unplanned” meetings in the Wichita airport, the two find themselves upon the same airplane and begin to engage in a budding attraction and charming back and forth chat about themselves and their life’s aspirations. Excusing herself to the bathroom to freshen up, Miller is immediately attacked by a collective of agents out to kill him. Miller effectively dispenses with all of the agents, including both pilots, leaving him and June to crash land the plane in a cornfield. Thus begins the globetrotting adventure of June and Roy. Filled with drugged separations, wild reunions, shoot-outs, explosions, chases, chases and more chases as they both perilously evade the team of agents led by FBI Special Agent Fitzgerald (Peter Saarsgard) and the minions of a Spanish arms dealer (Jordi Molla), as they are all in pursuit of a mysterious device known only as “The Zephyr.” And certainly, romance in the air yet will they survive their adventure in order to bring it to fruition?

From the start, “Knight and Day” is a high octane, extremely fast placed escapade completely filled with jovial spirits, a light touch and not one mean spirited bone in its body. Mangold, who has previously helmed the Oscar nominated Johnny Cash biopic “Walk The Line” (2005) and the Western “3:10 To Yuma” (2007), shows that he is more than able to handle all of the fleet of foot pyrotechnics with considerable skill (a motorcycle chase through a herd of bulls, for instance, is a highlight). Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz again show exactly why they are movie stars of their particular stature as they continue to show terrific chemistry and a remarkable ease with each other while making the preposterous situations move along in a breezy fashion.

But it is those preposterous situations that may be the film’s secret weapon (and eventual undoing-more of that later). Mangold, Cruise and Diaz inject sprinkles of sly comedy throughout “Knight and Day” that just may be slightly more subtle than one would expect with a film this busy. In addition to the dialogue that does indeed contain a certain wit, the film, as a whole, seems to be a spoof of spy movies and cataclysmic summer films in general while even playing with Cruise’s own “Mission: Impossible” series, on-screen image and public perception. Every situation is implausible, contrived, ridiculous and yes…impossible and knowingly so. The film seems to revel in just how many unreal situations it can place June and Roy into and again, with its light touch, there’ s never any real sense of danger or that something terribly awful will happen. We are meant to sit back and just enjoy the ride.

As for the character of Roy Miller, he is the eternal, over-achieving Boy Scout turned superhero who even proclaims that he could dismantle a bomb with a paper clip and a box of Pop Tarts (or something else that foolish and meant to evoke every television and movie super spy you’ve ever seen). But, what makes Miller interesting, as well as a clever conceit to any people’s perceptions of Tom Cruise, is that there is always the question that he is half-mad and so arrogantly in love with his handsomeness, skills and charm that it can easily save the day but may actually work against any lasting success. Sound familiar? There seems to be yet another perception that Cruise is a humorless sort as he has attempted to closely guard his image for so many years. But, he does seem to be wiling, to a degree, to poke holes in his own balloon and in the case of “Knight and Day,” it does add to the fun.

Unfortunately, none of those qualities are remotely enough as the film never goes anywhere, despite all of the locales and environments it places June and Roy into. I have to say that I felt a certain fatigue settle in around the middle of the film, as it was being slowly revealed to me that this movie just didn’t have a real destination. My mind turned, quite often, to Robert Zemeckis’ classic “Romancing The Stone” (1984), another implausible action romantic comedy starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, which has endured over the years due to the affection that was built between the audience and the characters they played. Their incredible celebrity and chemistry just wasn’t enough to stand on its own. They worked so diligently at the service of a story and characters that had a progressive arc to follow. We had the opportunity to experience Turner’s journey from a mousy wallflower romance writer to an independent, gusty, sexual adult woman of action. We watched Douglas’ journey from heartless mercenary to someone more giving and collaborative. And, of course, their individual journeys melded with their own romantic journey as they also evaded bullets, precarious rope bridges, shoot outs, mudslides and so on.

With “Knight and Day,” the two characters of June and Roy are not drawn so fully or even that well. The action begins at a fever pitch and remains there for the entire proceedings. There is no progression to the story and adventure at all and since there’s nothing to build, and no characters to become invested in, then what the point? If the filmmakers just wanted to create a film that could coast on the star power wattage of Cruise and Diaz, then that’s just not enough, no matter how much fun and skill they have placed into it. There is no emotional connection to be had and by the film‘s end, it just becomes the exact type of mindless summer movie it seems to be parodying. And most unfortunately, it nearly becomes just as unmemorable as those films too.

But, as I stated at the outset of this review, “Knight and Day” certainly isn’t lazy, as it works like the devil to ensure that audiences will be entertained with all of the action and verbal fireworks. Again, no matter how impressive it all looks, it is always, always, always about characters and story, which this film has decided to place upon the back burner in order to showcase the power of celebrity. And considering the massive distaste for Tom Cruise these days, that makes this film quite the misfire.

I’m still rooting for Tom Cruise to make that picture that will ingratiate himself positively into audience’s good graces and witness his immense and often overlooked talent. But sadly, this is not the film to achieve that goal.

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