The action-comedy has become quite popular in recent years, but it is a tough genre to pull off. You have to strike just the right balance, make sure that there is enough humor, and that it works, while also not skimping on the action. That is a difficult balance to achieve, and considering how obvious it is that Knight and Day is a very carefully constructed attempt to show that Cruise and Diaz are still superstars, and can still do fun and exciting films, it is amazing that the film works at all, but for most of its running time the movie is an entertaining, if disposable, summer blockbuster.
The film begins with June Havens (Cameron Diaz) bumping into a mysterious man multiple times in the Wichita airport. Once onboard the plane, she finds out that he is Roy Miller (Tom Cruise), a CIA agent who has supposedly gone rogue, and that the almost-empty flight is populated entirely by former colleagues of Roy’s who have been sent to kill him. After dispatching the agents and crash-landing the plane, Roy tells June that he was framed, and that some bad people will soon come along and pretend to help her.
It turns out that Roy is protecting a scientist named Simon Feck (There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano) who has created a battery called the Zephyr that can power a small city. Crooked elements within the CIA, headed by Peter Sarsgaard doing a spotty Southern accent, want to kill Simon, steal the battery and sell it to the highest bidder.
I had hopes that Roy might actually turn out to be crazy, but this is a Tom Cruise movie, so that ain’t happening. June doesn’t know this, however, and there are a few nice scenes in which she flees from Roy, who keeps having to kidnap her all over again.
He finally convinces her, of course, and from there the movie turns into the kind of globetrotting action picture we’ve seen literally hundreds of times before, moving from Boston and New York to Seville and Salzburg, with a stop in the South Pacific along the way.
The movie was helmed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma), who is working from a script he co-wrote with Patrick O’Neill, and he directs the film with wit and style. He allows Cruise and Diaz a little space at the beginning of the movie to develop a flirtation before the gigantic action sequences start, and once they do he stages them rather imaginatively. In one car chase sequence, we stay with Diaz and only see a limited view of Cruise’s rescue attempt as a bad guy bounces past the car or Cruise himself falls onto the hood. Another sequence finds a drugged Diaz fading in and out of consciousness as Cruise saves them from some bad guys, swinging upside down by his ankles at one moment and jumping out of an airplane at the next.
This is all a lot of fun, but when he isn’t charming us with his pearly whites, Roy’s behavior often borders on super-creepy stalkerdom. June becomes more and more capable of handling herself over the course of the film, but there are still a truly alarming number of scenes in which she is drugged by Roy, then dragged around like a piece of luggage. Sure, Roy takes her to nice places, but does she have to be unconscious when he does it?
I always like Cruise more when he’s playing jerks (Rain Man, Magnolia) or villains (Collateral), but here he relies on the sunglasses-and-giant-teeth style of acting he perfected way back in Risky Business, and as much as you can sense him straining here, he’s still pretty good at it. His and Diaz’s charm are enough to carry the movie for long stretches.
Diaz doesn’t have the widest range as an actress, but she has a huge, terrific smile, and she projects joy very well. There is a great scene in which a sinister Spanish arms dealer doses her with a truth serum (again with the drugs?), and Diaz is giddy at all the insults that keep pouring out of her mouth.
This is really the epitome of a star vehicle, so the excellent supporting cast is pretty thoroughly wasted. The overqualified Sarsgaard and Viola Davis play the government agents tracking Cruise. Dano gives a weird little performance that is dominated by a truly depressing attempt at a mustache.
Knight and Day really wants to feel charming and effortless while still working as an actioncomedy, somewhere along the lines of Charade or Romancing the Stone. Mangold’s light touch keeps the film afloat for most of its running time, but the movie feels too calculated and overblown to succeed as fully as it wants to. You can almost feel the flop-sweat radiating off the screen. The desperation is palpable. Cruise is clinging to the same boyish, unflappable persona that he has had for 25 years, and he’s frantically hustling to make us believe he can still do it, all the while trying to make it look effortless. All this effort to look cool while seeming not to be trying keeps him from being half as intrinsically suave as, say, Cary Grant.
Cruise is too manic for that. And he makes his character nigh on invulnerable. There’s never really any doubt that he can take care of the 10 or 20 guys who want to kill him at any given moment.
Knight and Day mostly succeeds, but at times you can feel the movie straining under its own weight. It feels more like the film managed to replicate “breezy and propulsive” through some sort of recipe or formula than through any natural process. But still, fun is fun, and despite feeling a little stage-managed and top-heavy, this movie is a slick and entertaining summer romp.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.