Knight and Day

By Adam Lippe

He looks aghast at the poster for the party. I Sold My Mom’s Wheelchair.

“Dance music for old people?”

It’s the moment that John Cusack’s character in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity realizes that this poster is being used to promote a band he just signed, and the party and album title will be one he’s inadvertently endorsed. Duped by his girlfriend, he’s agreed to attend an album release and perform as a DJ at a party that he will probably loathe.

So what Cusack attempts to do to fix the problem is to try to convince the group that he just signed not to come to the release party. (The group is made up of skater teenagers, so the title of the party is actually meant ironically.)

Is the concept of James Mangold’s Knight and Day, which is basically “Action movie for old people,” supposed to be ironic? Certainly the title, which seems even less appropriate once you’ve actually seen the film, is an attempt at a punny dodge for the subject at hand: Tom Cruise is getting old, he’ll be 48 next month, and he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t feel comfortable playing an aging spy, so he’s used a physical trainer and a lot of CGI* to give us the impression that he’s in tip top shape. That he runs like he’s a werewolf, as if he were on all fours, is immaterial, he’s buff and he wants us to see those abs. He’s going to jump onto the hoods of moving cars from impossible heights, and you’re going to like it.

Cruise has brought such single-minded reflections of his own demons to the screen before. Mission Impossible III, released at the height of the furor over his couch-jumping and modern psychology denying antics, is not that concerned with being an action movie, so much as a hammering home of the idea that a nuclear family can be created out of any unusual situation, which happened to coincide to his own marriage to the much-younger Katie Holmes.

Having your ego front and center is not a new thing for a movie star (as opposed to Magnolia, where Cruise is actually an actor); since the entire point of their existence is to repeatedly play characters with only the slightest variations on their public persona. Knight and Day is what they used to call an actor’s holiday, except in this case, it’s because the acting itself never showed up to the set. Seeing generally excellent actors like Peter Saarsgard reduced to playing forgettable and rote villains would be depressing if there was a hint that there was any thought put into anything but the over-the-top action sequences.

Some of these action scenes in Knight and Day, none of which are believable, are very kinetic and creative (especially the car chases); credit must be given to the snappy editing by Quincy Z. Gunderson** and Michael McCusker. I can’t say the same for director James Mangold who can’t find his way out of the mechanical nature of the rogue spy story and never gives Cameron Diaz anything more than the standard damsel-in-distress role; bubbly, frantic, and irritating. Mangold has such a poor idea of pacing, the movie is dead between the action, that instead of trying to create interest in the dialogue, he just changes locations or countries, as if we’d entered Bourne territory.

Despite the Bourne implication, Knight and Day is lighthearted and silly, to the point that you don’t mind Cruise’s immobilized forehead, or that the movie is a glorified video game, or that Mangold obviously has henchman entering a scene wearing dark helmets just so we can’t see their faces and he can recycle the stuntmen as they get knocked off.

So little time is given to trying to develop the story, something about a battery that’s a renewable energy source and trying to protect the scientist/creator, that the sub-plot about Cameron Diaz’s sister’s wedding gets 10 or 15 minutes of screen time, but the groom doesn’t even seem to have a name. Diaz, who is dressed like a scarecrow for the first act, all wrong for the opening plane crash into a cornfield, is still recovering from the soul devouring What Happens in Vegas…, a star vehicle which showed her at her least attractive, is game for the Knight and Day nonsense, and gives an effort at creating chemistry with Cruise.

However, Cruise is not interested in chemistry, he’s never had it with anyone but himself (not even the bottles in Cocktail), and though in Knight and Day he’s supposed to be a charming, indestructible superspy, he’s pretty off-putting, more like James Bond without the social skills. If anything, Knight and Day, which strands Paul Dano (as the scientist) behind a pre-pubescent-style mustache, works better if Cruise is legitimately crazy and doesn’t know it, so the arbitrary plot misdirection (why did Cruise think that Diaz would overhear…) and criss-crosses (the behavior of the CIA in the film is just distracting, not intriguing), are in the way. But the action, is often on par with but less violent than Wanted, and though Knight and Day is instantly forgettable (no, really, I can’t remember much of it a few days after the screening), it’s not always annoying and only moderately derivative***, which is a pretty high recommendation for an obnoxious summer movie.

* The effects, which are almost all convincing (the motorcycle chase has some blending and matting problems) were done by Weta Digital, who did stunning work on last year’s District 9.

** I’m still having a hard time believing that this isn’t a pseudonym.

*** The similarities to True Lies even extend to a truth serum sequence.

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Featured Quote (written by me)

On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.