Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Star power, yes; good movie, no way

Cruise and Diaz are moving fast, but going nowhere.

Too much of a chaotic blur to be considered a stain on the cultural landscape, Knight and Day – the latest Tom Cruise vehicle – is a familiar-feeling action comedy that strains to add extra fillips to the glimmer of a story it bothers to tell.

But the real issue here isn’t another action movie that demands not to be taken seriously. No, the real issue is Cruise, an actor with distinctive presence and undeniable spark. Cruise lately seems to be doing acting stunts (his appearance as a bald and blatant movie mogul in Tropic Thunder) or indulging in misguided seriousness as was the case with Valkyrie in which he played a heroic Nazi determined to kill Hitler. And, yes, another Mission Impossible movie looms, the fourth.

Cruise is now 47, close to the limit for climbing onto motorcycles, executing death-defying leaps and conquering cardboard villains, activities required by Knight and Day. It’s also possible that Cruise – with his very public commitment to Scientology and his embarrassing effusions on the Oprah show – has become too much Cruise to be accepted as any fictional character. Just wondering.

So I watched Knight and Day puzzling over what Cruise might be doing when he’s not trying to gin up chemistry with Cameron Diaz, firing automatic weapons or making small talk. What is an off-screen Tom Cruise like, really? Whatever the answer to that question, I had difficulty believing in him either as a romantic lead or an action hero – at least in this movie. And unlike the Mission Impossible series, Knight and Day doesn’t have pop cultural history to lean on nor does it help that director James Mangold may be operating out of his comfort zone. This time, Mangold -- best known for Cop Land, Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma -- seems to have gone commercial with a vengeance.

With an eye every crowd-pleasing strategy it can lay hands on, Knight and Day is less a movie than a showcase for action set pieces that strain for novelty (witness a chase that takes place in a Spanish city and involves a herd of stampeding bulls) and banter between Cruise (as a secret agent) and Diaz (as a woman who’s inadvertently caught up in his espionage game).

That game: Protect a high-potency battery that has both civilian and military implications. The CIA – led by an agent played by Peter Sarsgaard -- wants this amazing power source, so does a Spanish arms dealer (Jordi Molla).

All of this sets off a frantic wave of globe hopping that speeds past credibility as if it were little more than a faded billboard on a deserted country road; i.e., no attention is paid. The assumption – or so one supposes – is that few will care so long as the screen is flooded with ceaseless action and mega-watt star power.

The temptation with a movie such as Knight and Day is to compare it to the James Bond movies, which also exaggerated to the point of preposterousness. But Bond was a more compelling central figure than Cruise’s Roy Miller, and he seldom neglected to take time to indulge his pleasures. Miller, by contrast, moves with Road Runner speed that leaves little room for the expression of idiosyncrasy or endearing personal tics.

Bond also played for global political stakes. Although the script for Knight and Day tries to raise the ante, it’s difficult for me to believe that anything other than box-office performance rests on the movie’s formula-driven shoulders.

Diaz, who previously worked with Cruise on Vanilla Sky and who’s pretty much playing second fiddle here, spends most of her time looking alarmed. We know she’ll fall for Cruise’s Miller. How can she resist? Cruise uses his magnetism as if it were a weapon.

Paul Dano, who could have added real flavor to the proceedings, is largely wasted as Simon Feck, the skittish young man who invented the battery everyone’s pursuing. Sarsgaard seems little more than replaceable part in an action machine of a movie. Even Molla, who plays the fiendish Spanish gun smuggler, doesn’t make for much of a villain. Viola Davis also is wasted as a CIA officer.

Look, I get it. Villainy isn’t the point here. Neither is the so-called battery everyone’s trying to find. The point is to create a summer movie that overdoses on the ingredients we’re supposed to crave as soon as temperatures begin to rise: bleary action, inconsequential violence, winking humor and blind speed. For the record: high points include a plane crash, the strafing of a tiny island where Miller frequently hides and lots of chases in lots of vehicles.

Consider this, though: The most surprising special effect that could have been employed in this mashed-up, messed-up hybrid would have been a pause to take a breath. Don’t hold yours waiting for it.

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