Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz deliver solid fun and no surprises in 'Knight And Day'

James Mangold gives familiar script a smart sense of style

<p>Cameron Diaz may want to get whatever's causing that smoke looked at in a scene from the new action/comedy 'Knight and Day,' in theaters Friday.</p>

Cameron Diaz may want to get whatever's causing that smoke looked at in a scene from the new action/comedy 'Knight and Day,' in theaters Friday.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Today on my Twitter feed, screenwriter Geoff La Tulippe pointed out that in adjusted dollars, Tom Cruise's "Cocktail" earned $140 million when it was released.  That's domestic box-office.  For "Cocktail."

That's how big a movie star Tom Cruise used to be.  The dirty secret about Cruise as a movie star, though, is that he is a solid character actor who works harder than anyone when he's onscreen.  There are definitely Tom Cruise performances I don't like, Tom Cruise movies I don't like, but I would be hard-pressed to name many lazy Tom Cruise performances.

Watching "Knight And Day" a month after the release of "Killers," the first thing that struck me is that a side-by-side comparison of the first thirty minutes of each film is a perfect lesson in the difference between a movie star and a pretty face.  They both start from a similar premise, although written in very different ways.  In both, the lead actor is a spy/assassin who meets a totally normal girl and then drags her into his world.  Ashton Kutcher seems focused on looking cool in his film, working as hard as he can to strike a pose like each scene in a still page in a fashion magazine.  Kutcher's still working the same spoiled pout he picked up in the film "Spread," and it's sort of ridiculous. 

Meanwhile, Cruise is well aware of the value of a precisely struck pose to sell an action scene, but he also seems dedicated in "Knight and Day" on deconstructing that pose and poking fun at it at the same time.  It's a tricky thing to pull off, tone-wise, and if you do it wrong, you're making "Hudson Hawk."  Or you're just making an action movie.  More often than not, filmmakers trying for this sweet spot where you are gently ribbing the exact thing you're doing fail at it.  They tip their hand in some way and the whole thing just falls apart, collapses under the weight of all the clever.

In the last few weeks, I've been talking to my co-writer about how there's a new genre of movies that I am tired of, a particular story structure that I think is just exhausting at this point.  It's the "chase the doodad" movie.  "Prince Of Persia" was the one that wore me out recently, where I just couldn't sit through another variation on the basic idea of "There's this doodad, and it falls into the hands of this person, but this person wants it for good reasons, and this person wants it for bad reasons, and these other people want it, too, and everyone gets to chase the doodad.  This person gets it, then this person takes it, then it's broken, but it's not really broken, and then everyone fights over it, and then there's a bunch of CGI.  The end."  And you can tweak the details, but these movies really all end up being about a bunch of people running around chasing some doodad that matters for the most ridiculous of reasons.  Making this particular idea seem fresh or engaging is not an easy thing, so that added to the tricky tone that "Knight and Day" tries to negotiate should spell disaster... right?

Well, no, actually, and that's because everyone involved seems determined to make this a light and intoxicating riff on the idea, and for about 2/3 of the film, they pull it off.  For the most part, "Knight and Day" is entertaining and propulsive and slick and there are some beautifully played bits between Cruise and Cameron Diaz, who is just as aware of her particular brand of movie stardom as he is.  I don't think Cameron Diaz is an actor of much range, but I think that she does have the ability to project a natural quality, a spontaneous thing that transforms her at times on screen.  When she enjoys what she's doing, she is able to project that in such a way that the audience invests in that enjoyment.  Her smile is exaggerated, and only gets more so as she gets older, and it is the key to her onscreen success.  She's given nice performances when she hasn't smiled (I think she's great in "Vanilla Sky," for example), but she's never had a monster hit where she didn't turn it on.  "Charlie's Angels"... think about her doing the dance in her superhero underpants, that smile on her face that we see again during the "Soul Train" sequence later.  It's the same one she has on when she answers the door to Ben Stiller, blissfully unaware of her mousse problems in "There's Something About Mary".  It is absurd, that smile, and anyone who smiles like that seems willing to be part of the joke.

The script by Patrick O'Neill works really well at first.  June (Diaz) runs into Roy (Cruise) in an airport.  Literally.  A couple of times.  And what seems to her to be a chance encounter turns out to be a gateway into a globe-trotting life-endangering chase that involves federal agents like Viola Davis and Peter Sarsgaard and bad guys like Jordi Molla and innocent bystanders like Mark Blucas and Maggie Grace and Paul Dano and Celia Weston and Dale Dye.  It's a relentless movie (the closest thing the film has to a pause for breath is a scene that ends up with an island exploding), and like any film that only really ever strikes one note, it is less fun at the end than at the start.  James Mangold has a surprisingly light touch with the action and mixing comedy into it, and even when the CGI in the film is a little dodgy (and it is in places), the scenes are still a lot of fun because of the ideas, and because Cruise and Diaz sell it.

I can't imagine this is a film I'll spend time returning to, but it is a film I would recommend, and particularly to anyone who still counts themselves a fan of Tom Cruise.  This is exactly the Tom Cruise that I think people like most.  Self-aware, funny about it, cool when he's supposed to be, a little goofy, and still able to turn on that calculated Hollywood romance thing with the exact right grace notes.  Sure enough, "Knight And Day" eventually builds to another episode of "Run, Tom Cruise, Run!", but he plays it just right.  If this one does somehow tank even after word of mouth gets out (and I expect word of mouth will be very strong overall), then I blame Paul Dano's mustache.  You'll feel the same once you see it.  Shocking.

"Knight and Day" may cover familiar ground, but it does so with confidence and with two movie stars who were able to effortlessly summon their biggest movie star charisma.  This summer, that might be enough for the film to be a sensation.  We'll see when the film opens Wednesday.

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