Dec 3, 2010

Blu-ray Review: Knight and Day (2010)

Blu-ray Review: Knight and Day (2010)

Note: This review incorporates and greatly expands on my initial theatrical review of Knight and Day.

The Movie

Knight and Day features two bona fide movie stars with great chemistry between them on a romantic adventure that takes them all over the world, from one exotic location to another–and from one thrilling action setpiece to another. It’s the sort of epic spectacle spy movie that we just don’t get anymore–a throwback to the over-the-top late Connery/Moore era of Bond movies. (In fact, its points of parodic reference may have been too old to resonate with lots of average moviegoers.) If you like spy movies that feature both tropical paradises and snowy Alpine streets (I do!), then you will enjoy Knight and Day.

I’ve called the Transporter movies and their neo-Eurospy ilk the heirs to the daffy action of the Roger Moore Bonds. Knight and Day also fits that bill, but on a much larger Hollywood budget. It follows the Eurospy “kitchen sink” pattern of how to imitate 007 (pack in as many exotic locations as possible into a short amount of time, pile on one over-the-top action scene after another, and set multiple factions after the same ridiculous Macguffin), but it’s clearly a Hollywood product. In other words, it offers the best of both worlds when it comes to delivering Bond-like adventure in an openly sub-Bond, tongue-in-cheek fashion.

Tom Cruise plays Roy Miller (not the same Roy Miller Matt Damon played in another 2010 spy movie, Green Zone), who is either a maverick CIA agent who’s been forced to go renegade by villainous elements in his own organization, or a crazy person. Carmeron Diaz plays June Havens, an innocent bystander swept up into his maelstrom who’s not sure which story to believe. He certainly has secret agent skills, but he also acts pretty crazy.

The romantic comedy hook at play here is the idea of telling the story from the point of view of a Bond Girl–an ordinary (if beautiful) woman who finds herself mixed up with spies and way out of her depth. Despite that appealing hook, though, Knight and Day plays like an action movie with comedy and romance rather than an awkward action/romcom hybrid. It’s not the equal of Charade or North By Northwest, but that’s the tone it’s going for and generally succeeds at. It’s an action/adventure with a light but compelling romantic relationship at its center–and plenty of comedy. It reminded me a lot of James Cameron’s True Lies, which also built a succession of exciting, over-the-top, Bond-inspired setpieces around a central relationship. The action (heavily reliant on rather blatant CG) may not be up to Cameron’s standards, but overall I prefer the tone of Knight and Day and the chemistry between its stars.

I’m a sucker for a good Macguffin, the less explanation the better. Knight and Day is propelled by a classic (and very Eurospyish) Macguffin: the perpetual energy source. The movie makes no attempt to explain the science behind this device, relying instead on the shorthand of “not your average Duracel” or something like that. (It’s also conveniently battery-sized, yet prone to overheating–which can also prove convenient.) I was grateful for the lack of pseudo-scientific explanation and thoroughly involved with the chase on only the information provided. As Hitch himself said, the Macguffin itself shouldn’t matter at all. It just has to succeed at driving the plot. Knight and Day thrives on the slightness of its premise, and winks at the audience by not attempting to explain it any more than necessary. The audience (ideally) is complicit in this entertainment. We willingly surrender ourselves to the movie, and it knowingly acknowledges this with a recurring device in which Roy drugs June, and we then cut away and “wake up” with her in an entirely new exotic location with no explanation as to how we got there. While I would kind of like to have seen how Roy piloted them away from a tropical island under attack by a drone in a helicopter, I’m perfectly willing to accept this device–especially if it means more exotic locations, which it does.

Roy whisks June all around the globe, from Wichita to Boston to a tropical island to Austria back to Boston to Spain and finally South America. (More or less.) Maybe I’m even leaving out a few places. The point is, the film packs in the exotic scenery, which is one of my primary requirements from good spy entertainment. Director James Mangold also stages appropriate action sequences in each locale. In Kansas we get a spectacular plane crash in a cornfield, reminding us just how exciting the heartland can be for such sequences, as Hitchcock showed us half a century before. In Boston we get a breakneck highway chase and in New York we get a warehouse shootout. In the tropics there’s that drone attack, spewing bullets and missiles, and in Austria we get a fight on a train and a rooftop chase. (Yes! I love trains in spy movies–especially with fights on them! And I love European-set rooftop chases!)

Sevilla offers a car and motorcycle pursuit involving sporty electric cars and–of course!–bulls. Yes, the bulls and the cars interact–in a most satisfying manner. All of the action could be better (and as I already mentioned, the CGI is painfully obvious in places–but that’s a flaw I’m willing to forgive when I’m invested in the ride), but at least Mangold has the sound mind to allow it to play out largely in wide master shots so that you can actually follow what’s going on and take in the breathtaking scenery at the same time. Such action direction (recalling–if not quite up to the standards of–the great and too often unsung John Glen) is a welcome breath of fresh air at a time when the trend is to shoot and cut action sequences so fast and furiously that the viewer can neither comprehend the action nor savor the location. (I’m looking at you, Quantum of Solace!)

Is the movie without flaws? Of course not. Frankly, I would have been happy if it had ended in Sevilla; everything after that (about ten minutes) seemed extraneous. And, as I mentioned, while I’m grateful that the action is allowed to play out in a comprehensible manner, it could have been more dynamically directed. There are some great stunts and practical effects, but they’re frequently drowned out by an over-reliance on CGI. John Powell scores a rare miss with his tropicalia-flavored score when what was really called for was Bondian bombast–or at least Powell’s own contemporary brand of bombast which I was just praising last week in my Fair Game review. Tom Cruise himself was seen as a liability (and his supposed–and erroneous–inability to open a film these days apparently led to an overhaul of the next Mission: Impossible movie), but he really isn’t at all. I’m not a very big fan of Cruise anymore (like most of America, apparently), but he puts his all into this role and delivers a genuinely charming performance. If bigger audiences tune in on DVD and Blu-ray than did in the theaters, they’ll quickly forget whatever issues they have with the actor outside of his movies. So Cruise may have been billed as a drawback in the media, but he isn’t at all. The title Knight and Day may have been–and it’s never adequately explained in the film. (It still beats the awful working title of Wichita, but surely they could have come up with something better!) Oh well. Whatever Fox wants to call it, this is a thoroughly entertaining spy movie that rewards fans of the genre with the genre’s most famous hallmarks: fantastic locations, over-the-top action and grand escapism.

The Disc

The special features on Fox’s DVD and Blu-ray combo, unfortunately, aren’t much to write home about. “Wilder Knights and Crazier Days” is the meatiest of several featurettes at a whopping 12 minutes, but you won’t get any serious insights into the filmmaking process. It’s mostly tepid and generic EPK (Electronic Press Kit, generated to promote the film, not to examine its making) material. If you can get past the EPK shmooze-fest, though, and ignore the canned soundbites, there are some neat BTS (behind-the-scenes) shots of Tom Cruise performing his own stunts in various exotic locations.

I could do without Cruise himself boasting about how he always does his own stunts and the other stars providing contractually-obligated soundbites about how in awe of him they are for it, but the footage itself is impressive. In the movie, these stunts are often slathered in so much obvious CGI that it’s tough to appreciate that they’re done for real. (Director James Mangold even laments this fact, though it’s he who packed the stunts in amidst all the CGI!) On the BTS cameras, though, it might not look as slick, but it’s much easier to appreciate what Cruise puts himself through for our entertainment. There’s a lot of focus on the highway chase in Boston (though all these California Movie People keep referring to it as a “freeway chase”) and the rooftop foot chase in Salzberg, Austria. The latter is pretty awesome, I have to say. That chase more than any other goes by in a flash in the film, and takes place at night, so I really appreciate the more lingering glimpse provided here. It’s such a great spyish location and appropriate setpiece! Seeing the BTS footage, I really wish the scene had lasted longer in the movie.

One telling thing that it’s possible to discern amidst all the PR whitewash is that Tom Cruise seems to very much be the dominant force on the set, not James Mangold. Cruise takes credit for the motorcycle stunt wherein Cameron Diaz flips around from riding behind him to riding in front of him, facing backwards and firing guns. He says he always wanted to do that stunt. Oh yeah, Tom? “Always” as in ever since Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh did it thirteen years ago in Tomorrow Never Dies, maybe? Well, original or not, it is a cool stunt, and it works just fine the second time around in Knight and Day. (Right after that bit, there’s a quote from Mangold admitting that, “We did model them after the great chases of the Bond movies.” Remembering that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery is the key for Bond fans to enjoying Eurospy movies, and the same applies here.)

“Boston Days and Spanish Knights” is basically just a shorter (7 minutes) cutdown of the same EPK package, using lots of the same soundbites and clips. It’s kind of frustrating to see the same material in two separate special features, but having worked in that business I know exactly how that happens. (Two cuts of the same BTS documentary I worked on ended up being included on the Return of the King DVD, with much of the same material–basically because the studio couldn’t decide what it wanted–but overall I suppose they were different enough to warrant the inclusion of both.) We do get some good quotes from Mangold that weren’t in the other piece really summing up the tone of the film much better than Fox’s ad campaign did. “This is a movie that’s not about reality,” the director tells us, “but that’s about a fantasy made real.... It’s candy for the eyes.” Exactly! And I loved it for that, while some of my friends who seemed to expect something deeper went home disappointed when we saw it in the theater together. Mangold also explains that it was important for him to actually take audiences around the globe, and I, for one, was appreciative of that mandate. The diverse worldwide locations are one of the best things the movie has going for it!

Two even shorter featurettes (running about 3 minutes apiece) are basically even more drastic cutdowns of the same BTS material. “Story” is misleadingly not about the story (which Mangold summarizes succinctly–along with pretty much every other spy movie ever–as “he’s in possession of an object that everyone else wants”), and if you’re expecting a complex examination of the screenwriting process, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead it’s a total love-fest, with everyone saying how great Tom Cruise is and how Cameron Diaz is “incredibly gifted,” etcetera, etcetera. Once again the best quote belongs to Mangold, who says, “There’s movies you make because you want to deliver a message; there’s movies you make to take someone on an emotional journey; this is supposed to be a ride.” Exactly! That’s just what I wanted from it; that’s all anyone should expect of it, and they’ll be richly rewarded.

“Scope” is another 3-minute EPK featurette virtually indistinguishable from “Story.” It mainly focuses on the locations, though, and as I admitted above, I like seeing locations and I like seeing BTS that proves they really shot on those locations, so I’m not going to complain about that... except to say that if you’ve already watched “Wilder Knights and Crazier Days,” then you’ve already seen most of it.

“Knight and ‘Someday’” is an even more useless featurette somehow stretched out into eight agonizing minutes. This one’s for die-hard Cruise and Black Eyed Peas fans only, and I’m not sure how big a cross section of those fan bases really intersects. It’s essentially about Cruise asking the Peas to perform a song on the film’s soundtrack (“Someday”) and then appearing briefly with them on stage at London’s O2 arena, but it really milks this setup! We follow Cruise walking through the halls of the arena with his wife Katie Holmes, hugging person after person after person and patting them on the back. It’s horrible! Then the Peas themselves take forever to tell the story of how Cruise came to their show in Miami and asked them to do a song. Really, this story does not even need to be told at all, let alone drawn out! (And I’d say that even if it were Shirley Bassey talking instead of It’s just boring.) We learn that Tom “loves that creative process” hanging out with the band, and that singer thinks the movie is “dope.” All this leads up to footage of Cruise’s big moment joining the band on stage (with a caption helpfully telling us that “the English crowd went crazy”), yet when we get there, we just see it; we don’t actually hear Cruise singing! Instead, they play the album version of the song over the footage. Eight minutes of agonizing setup with zero payoff! Skip it.

The only thing that keeps “Knight and ‘Someday’” from being the MOST pointless featurette on this or any DVD is another one entitled “How To Make a Digital Copy” (or something to that effect). In this one, a ridiculously chipper and smarmy Luke Wilson wannabe smiles his way creepily through a tutorial designed to show even bigger Luddites than myself how to transfer their digital copy to their computer or portable media device. It even shows us how to plug in a USB cable! And how to insert a disc into your computer! Really. “So look for the digital copy logo whenever you buy a DVD or Blu-ray!” the host concludes after seven or eight minutes. (I know; I know. Obviously I didn’t have to watch that and just wanted to be a wise-ass. I’m sure it’s very helpful to the all-important Wal-Mart demographic.)

Rounding out the special features are the trailer that played like clockwork before every movie last spring, and two promotional minute-long viral videos. “Soccer” shows Cruise and Diaz kicking a soccer ball on set and showing off tricks they know. Is it real? I’m not sure–and therefore I’m not really sure of the point. “Kick” definitely isn’t real, though, presenting a setup wherein Diaz ends up kicking Cruise in the chest during rehearsal and knocks him into a craft service table. I guess it’s funny. These aren’t really my cup of tea, but I guess they have their audience so it’s cool that they’re included.

That’s a lot of griping about the special features, then. But the main attraction on all three discs on the combo package (Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy) is of course the film, and it’s a good one. Knight and Day and Cruise both got a bad rap this past summer, and undeservedly. The press seemed very anxious for Cruise to fail, and so they painted this film to be a flop. But it really wasn’t–certainly not internationally. It was recently reported that Knight and Day went on to make $264 million worldwide, more than Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups, which was considered a hit. Knight and Day wasn’t a flop and it isn’t bad. It’s not groundbreaking cinema or anything, but it’s not for one instant trying to be. As Mangold makes clear in the featurettes, this is a popcorn flick, through and through, and it delivers pretty much everything I desire from spy popcorn flick with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek: great locations, cool action setpieces, engaging performances and stampeding bulls crushing a sports car. The high-def transfer on the Blu-ray showcases all those things–particular the stars and the locations–to their best advantage, and the standard-def transfer on the DVD certainly isn’t shabby either. The bonus material is, but don’t let that stop you from picking up this highly entertaining, utterly unpretentious popcorn spy flick.


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