Last night I was at a loss for a DVD pick of the week and wondered if I might find some worth in either “Knight and Day” or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” I do love to defend the merits of a dismissed or underrated Hollywood production. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, as was the case when I finally saw the legitimately awful “MacGruber.” This time it does. I went with the Tom Cruise movie and now consider it, in place of “MacGruber,” the best action comedy of the year.
Tom Cruise earned wide praise for his masquerade performance in “Tropic Thunder,” believed at the time a comeback for the actor following his “crazy” PR-dismissing accidents involving Oprah’s couch and Scientology promotion. But then he “bombed” (or at least disappointed, domestically anyway) with last summer’s action comedy “Knight and Day,” perhaps for the reason that, antithetical to the studio exec in “Tropic Thunder,” here he is out in the open as “Tom Cruise.” Rather than wearing a disguise this time, not even so much as an eye patch, he’s transparently himself. Or, so it seems. He’s kind of wearing a whole bunch of masks, they all just appear transparent because they are all “Tom Cruise” persona masks. And he’s clearly having a great time onscreen playing with his image. I had a great time watching it. But then, I’m one of the few who really hated him in “Tropic Thunder.”
I would love to say that “Knight and Day” is an underrated masterpiece. In a way, I believe it. However, the general movie viewer isn’t going to appreciate it. Audiences have trouble with ironic action comedy. This is basically Cruise’s “Last Action Hero,” though Patrick O’Neill’s script here is not quite as on-the-nose meta as anything written by Shane Black (who also failed at the box office with similar tone in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”). I’m also reminded of what “Grosse Pointe Blank” was for John Cusack (fittingly, O’Neill is an actor in “Grosse Pointe Blank”). For the most part “Knight and Day” comes off specifically as a self-inflicted parody of Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” series. There are more than a few direct references. More importantly, though, the movie taps into the cultural acceptance of Cruise of late. His character, Roy Miller, is without question creepy and crazy and mysterious in an unappealing way. Like Cruise. And yet also like Cruise there’s the huge smile and charisma that neither June Havens (Cameron Diaz) nor we can help but give in to.
In the past it was cockiness that we forgave while giving into the charm. Today there are different obstacles but in the end he’s still Maverick, still Charlie Babbitt, still Jerry Maguire. Unfortunately, the general public is having more trouble with the new hurdles than they did the old. It might not help that in the past decade Cruise had already been burying his more appealing assets for darker roles and films. I feel like the iconic grin hasn’t been this enormous since the mid ’90s (save for maybe his cameo as “himself” in “Austin Powers in Goldmember”), and I’m glad it came back.
The Best Live-Action Cartoon Since “Shoot ‘Em Up”
Another aspect of “Knight and Day” that I love is also unfortunately problematic at times. This is James Mangold’s excellent direction, his choreography I guess, of the action sequences. Quick-paced yet still completely comprehensible. They are heavy on CG and rightfully so since this movie is just a live-action cartoon, somewhere between “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Nothing looks real — certainly not the bulls who flip over the sports car, nor the sports car. But also very little of it is foregrounded. This is mostly to fit with the focalization of Diaz’ character. The movie is seen through her point-of-view, at least for the first half and again in one major scene later, so that if she doesn’t see a car crash or a guy leap from his motorcycle in close-up, neither do we. Much of the action in an early highway chase is obstructed or sidelined. This also fits with spoof movies like those by Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, and Looney Tunes cartoons. We’re constantly required to pay attention to the outskirts of the mise-en-scene and more often outside the frame.
It’s too bad that halfway into the movie a common rooftop chase is suddenly shot not from June’s POV. And the narrative perspective is opened up further to allow other audience-privileged scenes featuring the villains without either Cruise or Diaz present. Ultimately, and gratifyingly, however, the POV is changed to Roy’s in the last scene for a reversal on an earlier moment. These instances of limited narrative perspective kept reminding me of “Inception,” because each time June or Roy wakes up from a drug-induced sleep the setting has totally changed. We experience the new setting right along with them, and for all of us it’s similar to the characters in “Inception” “awakening” into different dream settings. Open your eyes and we’re in the Azores. Close them again and then open for Austria. Perhaps if “Knight and Day” opened after “Inception” people would have appreciated it more in this way (I doubt it).
Much has been said about how “Knight and Day” failed due to how it was marketed (some point to the poster, Anne Thompson writes that the trailer “shows Tom Cruise the way we don’t like him: over-charged with adrenaline”). I think even marketed correctly it wouldn’t have caught on that well. But I did just notice that none of the press photos I can find show off Cruise’s signature smile. That was a big mistake, at least as far as catching my attention. Also, I have to say that Cameron Diaz, who I very rarely like, gives her best performance since “Being John Malkovich” as the kind of character she usually plays terribly. Somehow she found more depth in the part of the oblivious blond. Or, maybe she just needs good, understated writing.
Give “Knight and Day” a try if you haven’t already. Or, if you dismissed it before, try to see it differently.
Also highly recommended new releases on DVD this week: the Disney film history docs “Waking Sleeping Beauty” and “Walt & El Grupo.”