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“Knight and Day” is two movies in one: it features two very carefully thought out characters, with emotions and background and all that gooey stuff you identify with actual living, breathing characters instead of what passes for archetypes in, say, a Michael Bay blow’em upper. But at the same time, “Knight and Day” is an over-the-top, cartoony, and completely consequence-free action movie, the kind of vacuous nonsense that Hollywood does so well. The middle ground is director James Mangold, a former indie director turned Hollywood mainstream director, who shows as much genuine care for the motivations and emotions of his two main characters as he does in the wild and outrageous stunts he’s filling the screen with. Who would have thunk such a melding would be possible?
Tom Cruise is the cog that makes “Knight and Day” go: he is Roy Miller, a super duper CIA spy who has gone rogue. Or so his Agency claims. Led by the shady Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard), the Agency is currently pursuing Miller through a Wichita, Kansas airport when he runs into fellow traveler June Havens (Cameron Diaz), a spunky and quite possibly the cutest grease monkey you’ll ever find. (This is a movie, after all.) During the plane ride back to Boston, Roy kills everyone on the plane (they were all Agency operatives, as it turns out), leaving June back in Boston with the Agency on her tail. Roy eventually meets up with her again, and tells her a whopper of a tale – something about a super duper battery the size of a finger that can power an entire city, that everyone seems to want, including a Spanish arms dealer (Jordi Molla).
For much of the film, the script by Patrick O’Neill keeps us guessing as to the mental stability of Cruise’s Roy Miller. Is he really who he says he is, or is he as delusional and out of control as his Agency claims? That’s all for June to figure out, but before she does, June is whisked off to various locales around the world, much of the traveling done while she’s drugged. That happens a lot in “Knight and Day”. To be honest with you, I was more than a little bit uncomfortable with how easily Roy knocks her out and carries her around the world with him. The script tries to justify this later when June reverses the gag on Roy, but I don’t know, it still left me a bit uncomfortable, but hey, maybe that’s just me. If nothing else, it’s an interesting way to get the characters from Point A to Point B without wasting time with traveling montages and what not.
Chalk “Knight and Day” up to another successful film in director James Mangold’s very eclectic resume. The man who began his career with the indie “Heavy”, parlayed that into the star-studded gritty cop film “Cop Land”, and has been working steadily in quality mainstream cinema ever since (including the Oscar winning “Walk the Line”), has always managed to avoid being pigeonholed. He’s done horror (“Identity”), fantasy romance (“Kate & Leopold”), a western (“3:10 to Yuma”), and now, an action movie. The fact that Mangold cut his teeth on character-heavy films and not flashy 5-minute music videos gives him a major advantage over his fellow action directors. There are a couple of very effective character scenes in “Knight and Day” that your average action movie director would never have been able to pull off, much less thought was needed. With Mangold, it’s child’s play, but only because he puts just as much emphasis on a simple, quiet moment between Roy and June in a Paris hotel as he does tossing Roy around on a car’s roof while the car is speeding down the same highway that happens to be exploding all around him.
Mangold more than proves his mettle in the department of “blow’em up, then when you’re done, blow’em up some more”. “Knight and Day” is a series of outrageous action sequences, with the first hour consisting of pretty much non-stop running, gunning, and stuff blowing up real good. Cruise’s Roy Miller demolishes an entire plane in the film’s opening action sequence, follows that up with a city highway, then a brutal fight in a moving train and a Paris rooftop chase, and those are just some of the highlights. One complaint, though: the film’s finale isn’t nearly as exciting as it could have been, and I blame that on all the elaborate choreography involving bulls, narrow Spanish streets, and a car chase that feels like a letdown after all the outrageous chaos of the first half.
And hey, remember Tom Cruise? The movie star with the million dollar smile? Cruise hasn’t exactly had the best time in recent years, with a series of bombs and a vulgar cameo in “Tropic Thunder” being the highlight, but “Knight and Day” is most definitely a return to form for the former “Top Gun” star. Cruise is so at home as Roy Miller that you suddenly remember why he earns $20 million dollar paychecks in the first place. “Mission Impossible 4” can’t come fast enough. But Cruise wouldn’t be nearly as good without Cameron Diaz. Mangold and the script wisely don’t turn her into some ridiculous Roy Miller counterpart, one of those nods to politically correctness where she’s shown to be “just as tough as the man” blah blah blah. June is not a well-trained, cold-blooded spy, but she’s a Tomboy, and she’s plenty tough, and she can get by. Diaz is great in the role; she is funny and charming and insanely adorable.
There’s a lot of plot to “Knight and Day”, but it’s all background noise, and Mangold treats it as such. At its very center, “Knight and Day” is an unconventional romance between Roy Miller and June Havens; there just happens to be lots of bullets flying through the air and stuff going kaboom around them. Supporting characters come and go as the plot dictates, including Viola Davis (“Law Abiding Citizen”) as the Agency boss and Maggie Grace (“Taken”) in a very minor role as June’s sister. Marc Blucas is amusing as Rodney, June’s ex-boyfriend, while Peter Sarsgaard is a plot device as the Agency man leading the manhunt for Roy Miller. Paul Dano is Simon Feck, a genius at the center of the film’s ridiculous plot.
With “Knight and Day”, director James Mangold shows a surprising adeptness at orchestrating mayhem. Doubly impressive is that he never loses sight of what makes the film tick – Roy and June. Beyond the humor, the explosions, and the cartoony gunplay, “Knight and Day” is really a pretty simple movie about a guy who meets a girl, and they both realize that there may be a chance at something here that they both didn’t think were previously possible. The fact that stuff blows up real good all around them, or that it’s all very insanely entertaining, are just added bonuses.
James Mangold (director) / Patrick O’Neill (screenplay)
CAST: Tom Cruise … Roy Miller
Cameron Diaz … June Havens
Peter Sarsgaard … Fitzgerald
Jordi Mollà … Antonio
Viola Davis … Director George
Paul Dano … Simon Feck
Marc Blucas … Rodney
Maggie Grace … April Havens