Tom Cruise has been a movie star for more than 25 years. But in that time, “fun” is an adjective that rarely has been applied to his screen persona.
But, as he shows in James Mangold’s “Knight and Day,” the generally intense Cruise can lighten up. Even as he approaches 50, Cruise broadens his range – maybe not to a Cary Grant level of charm, perhaps, but certainly to something a lot less determined and disciplined than usual: something that approaches actual goofiness.
As Roy Miller, a mysterious and winning guy who pops into the life of June Havens (Cameron Diaz) in the Wichita airport, Cruise is ineffably polite, to the point of solicitousness. He knows right from the start that he is about to visit havoc on June’s life, so he wants to make it as painless and enjoyable as possible for her.
What follows is a story that rocks happily along for almost an hour, as June finds herself caught up in Roy’s mission: to protect the inventor of a perpetual-energy battery and keep the battery itself from falling into the wrong hands. She’s with Roy when he lands a plane (whose entire crew he’s eliminated after they attack him) in the middle of a cornfield, then when he rescues her from a group of government agents in the middle of Boston. They wind up on an island in the Azores, then in the Austrian Alps, before finishing up in Spain.
As I said, the movie bubbles happily for almost an hour before it flags. It dips into doldrums for a half-hour or so, then rights itself again for a finale that finds the same light touch as the beginning. And it all has to do with Cruise’s jolly performance and the way it contrasts with Diaz’s increasing sense of panic.
Much of that comes from Patrick O’Neill’s script, which owes a significant debt to the Stanley Donen film, “Charade,” and its Peter Stone script. Like that 1963 vehicle for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, “Knight and Day” is about a woman accidentally caught up in a plot with many moving parts, whose only guide is a charming but seemingly unreliable guy, who keeps saving her bacon after first putting her in harm’s way.
In this film, June doesn’t know how much to believe of what Roy tells her, though he seems to be pretty much on the money. He cautions her, for example, that she’ll be visited by government agents, who will tell her that Roy is a rogue operative – and that when they start repeating the fact that they want to keep her safe and secure, she should bolt, because that means they’re about to kill her.
Sure enough, when she wakes up in Boston after the plane crash and goes for a bridesmaid-dress fitting for her sister’s wedding, she’s snatched up by a steely FBI agent (Peter Sarsgaard), who begins quizzing her about Roy. Roy rescues her but she flees him because she’s not convinced that he isn’t a lunatic. Eventually, when she wakes up on a tropical island (and sees him emerge from the ocean, shirtless and buff, with a fish on a spear) – and they are attacked by a bomb-spewing drone aircraft – she begins to get a sense of whose explanation she ought to believe.
The key to the humor is Cruise’s breezy sangfroid, as though clinging to the hood of a speeding car while firing a pistol at pursuers is nothing to be alarmed about. O’Neill and director James Mangold understand that the more unflappable Cruise is – and the more worked up Diaz gets – the funnier this all is, particularly when spectacular action (including car chases, airplane crashes and even a little hand-to-hand on a speeding train) is happening around them.
On the other hand, O’Neill’s segue of choice – in which Roy finds various ways to render June unconscious to then magically transport her to a new location – grows old after the second time. And, as noted, the film levels out in the middle, losing the giddy quality that it magically sustains for much longer than seems possible. But writer and director recapture the feel for the finale.
Cruise is as loose and likable as I can ever remember him being. Roy Miller may have demons but Cruise never lets us see them. While he does show us Roy’s serious side – he’s committed to saving the nerdy scientist played by Paul Dano – he’s always the kind of guy who seems untroubled and makes everything look easy. He’s not a wise-cracker; rather, he’s funny because he’s so unfailingly polite to June, complimenting her on the bridesmaid’s dress even as bullets fly around them, always smilingly trying to keep her calm by being the voice of reason in situations that scream of chaos.
I’ve never thought Diaz was much of a serious actress – and she’s not a strong enough comedian to elevate weak material (the dreadful “Charlie’s Angels,” “What Happens in Vegas”). But give her a solid script – “Being John Malkovich,” “There’s Something About Mary” and now this – and she can shine. She finds the right panic notes to create comic harmony with Cruise.
The commercials do this movie no favors, which is too bad because “Knight and Day” is often delightful: funny, exciting and entertaining. It reminds you why Tom Cruise is a star and makes you wish he’d loosen up more often.