Friday, July 2, 2010

Knight and Day (dir. James Mangold)

I've been struggling all week with how to discuss Knight and Day. Because you don't want to oversell it. I mean, it's not exactly reinventing the wheel, and there's a point where the screenwriters (and there were plenty) make a pretty horrible decision that stops the movie dead for a solid twenty minutes. And there is the matter of that title...

But on the other hand, I desperately want to tell everyone that this is awesome. I can't IMAGINE what this movie would be like for someone who didn't have high hopes for it, because I was actually excited to see this and it still swept me off my feet. It's the kind of storytelling Hollywood used to be known for - beat your script into the ground until it works, dammit! - but now utilizes all too rarely. Thankfully, the film isn't simply an imitation. It isn't trying to emulate old classics (Charade, North by Northwest, or the early James Bond films) as much as it has fully digested them and given us those same delights in a modern package.

Tom Cruise (one of the few movie stars willing to give everything he has, no matter what the film) plays Roy Miller, a superspy of the Ethan Hunt variety who has recently either suffered a complete mental collapse or discovered a plot within the FBI that he is seeking to expose. We really can't tell, and more importantly, neither can June (Cameron Diaz). June is, improbably enough, the manager of an auto shop, who is traveling on business when she meets, and is to some extent kidnapped, by Roy - he believes the FBI will kill her simply for having been exposed to Roy (it's a bit more complicated than that, but that'd be telling). From there they'll find themselves in Boston, Brooklyn, a private island, a train in the Alps, and a grand finish in Spain.

The film largely coasts, as these sorts of films do, on the chemistry between Cruise and Diaz, who are absolutely fantastic together. They have a big, getting-to-know-you kind of scene that goes on way longer than most scenes are allowed to these days, especially in an action film, but it locks these two together for us. Yes, the film is selling an unconvincing romance between them, but honestly, who gives a damn? More informed viewers will recall that Charade had a great pair of actors - Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn - who simply never should have been presented in a romantic context. Thing is, both movies are a blast, so nobody gives it much concern.

Fact is, though Cruise and Diaz have both given fine performances in the past (Cruise especially seems destined to never get his proper due), this is the most fun they have been in a very long time. Cruise is given instant license to cut loose, and as incredible a performance as it is, he actually remains fairly restrained, making consistently brilliant choices to navigate some tricky territory. He successfully plays to the character, the audience's preconceptions of Cruise himself, and the is-he-or-isn't-he-crazy question that dominates much of the narrative. That he can do this and still be so magnetic (in a way similar to, but very distinct from, Jerry Maguire) is the kind of thing that very few actors ever have the license to do, and even fewer can pull off.

Diaz, meanwhile, has to play the Cameron Diaz type who is suddenly thrust into a world of violence and mayhem, and while the script has a couple of really unfortunate, ditzy-girl moments (as in the one shown in the trailer, where she is surrounded by gunfire and rather than, say, move out of the way, she simply spins around in a circle and screams), she mostly just reacts to these situations as a person. And most people wouldn't know what to do in a high-speed chase, have never handled a firearm before (much less an automatic weapon), and try to avoid violence in their everyday lives. Diaz plays fear, shock, and resistance very well here, skirting the edge of genuine concern while maintaining the film's entertainment-first goals. When the film finally does give her license to have as much fun as Cruise has been having, her gusto is a genuinely wonderful thing to watch.

Director James Mangold has shown a special knack in the past for bringing out the best in formulaic films - the heart of the biopic romance in Walk the Line, the excitement of a Western shootout in 3:10 to Yuma - but he's really knocked it out of the park here. Pace and timing is everything, as the film has to move fast enough to keep us hooked, slow down enough to develop Roy and June's relationship (and even if the romance doesn't work, they do develop a convincing bond over the course of the film), and land the many laughs the film puts out there. Breathless, light fun is one of the hardest things to pull off in all of cinema (which is probably why nobody makes fun live-action movies anymore), so I'm even willing to forgive the twenty-or-so-minute stumble at the end of the second act because everything else is just so...perfect.

The way Mangold sets up and pays off the fun bits of tension is extraordinary. None of the suspense stems from dread, so Mangold sets it up more like a slight tickle, a tease. The action is clean, coherent, very well paced. Set pieces should play like music or dance, and while others are wrestling to craft grand symphonies, Mangold here has mastered the concerto. Cuts are there for a reason, not simply to be economical in his coverage - if he can accomplish something in a one shot (and there's one in particular that is maybe the most inspired shot I've seen all year), he'll just go for it.

He creates a really interesting, very cinematic tone to the film, the sort of otherworldly vibe that radiates from classic Hollywood films where an artificial environment is very purposefully created and maintained - he never once tries to pretend this isn't a movie. Because of this, the fact that the seams show on CGI is not a detriment as many have declared, but in fact to the film's advantage. The distancing created when we can feel the presence of an artificial environment is something alternately battled (as in the fourth Indiana Jones) and embraced (most recently and successfully in Shutter Island), but it used to be commonplace in classic Hollywood cinema in rear-projection and more artificial sets, which were such pervasive parts of the pictures that one comes to accept and love them, as one does a stage at the theater. That something looks "fake" doesn't automatically means it looks "bad." It just has to look "right," and Knight and Day looks exactly as it should, all the time.

What else is there to say? Knight and Day is a wonderful film. Smart, genuinely fun - the joy comes as often from the wordplay and the characters as it does from the car chases (sometimes all at once!) - it calls to mind the globe-trotting adventures of yesteryear without referencing or imitating. I'm not going to lie and say it's perfect, because no, of course it's not. What is? But its tone is so delightful, the performances turned all the way to "fun," and so frequently inspired that I just adore it through and through.

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