Jun 28, 2010

Movie Review: Knight and Day (2010)

Knight and Day features two old-fashioned movie stars (remnants of what seems to be the last generation of actual 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. 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.

Tom Cruise plays Roy Miller. Knight and Day is actually the second Roy Miller spy film of the year (and sadly the second Roy Miller movie to underplay at the box office), following the very different Green Zone (review here), in which Matt Damon played Roy Miller. No, no, they’re two completely different characters, but I find the coincidence amusing. It reminds me of the the Eurospy days when lots of different distributors would all call their hero Agent 077 or 3S3 or something to piggyback the success of another film and try to trick audiences into thinking it was part of the same franchise. This Roy Miller is either a maverick CIA agent who’s been set up by villainous elements in his own investigation or else he’s a crazy person. Carmeron Diaz plays June Havens, an innocent bystander swept up into his permanent 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 who gets caught up in this kind of action, an ordinary (if beautiful) woman 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/rom-com 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.

I’m a sucker for a good Macguffin, the less explanation the better. Knight and Day is propelled by a classic Macguffin: the perpetual energy source. (How many Eurospies chased the same elusive objective?)  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.) 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. The audience shouldn't care about it.  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. We’re 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 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 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. (Yes! I love trains in spy movies–especially with fights on them!) Seville offers a car and motorcycle chase 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 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? Not by a long shot. Frankly, I would have been happy if it had ended in Seville; 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. (More practical effects and less reliance on CGI also would have been welcome, but the CG certainly wasn’t detrimental.) I’m not really a fan of Tom Cruise anymore (like most of America, apparently), but he puts his all into this roll and delivers a genuinely charming performance. If audiences actually do get themselves into the theaters, they’ll quickly forget whatever issues they have with the actor outside of his movies. (The audience I was with seemed to enjoy the film every bit as much as I did.) The title Knight and Day is never adequately explained. 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, it’s 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 a really good time at the theater.

Last week, I heard The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern review Knight and Day on the radio, and he complained that “Knight and Day woke me up to just how awful some summer entertainments have become.” He went on to call it “harmful... to moviegoers’ wallets and movie lovers’ morale.” After seeing the film, I’m flabbergasted at such comments. If one is truly a “movie lover” (which is a different thing from being an art house snob, as the term “movie” is really quite broad), then I can’t imagine he or she finding Knight and Day in any way harmful to their morale. It’s the very definition of fun summer entertainment. No, it’s not a movie that demands much thought from the viewer, but must every movie? Of course not. (Knight and Day even jokingly acknowledges this conceit, and wears it on its sleeve.) I like a healthy percentage of my movie intake–especially during the summer–to require little to no thought. I like to put myself in the filmmakers’ hands and be entertained for two hours. Now, I’m not saying that I’ll accept just anything. The key is that entertainment. There are plenty of big popcorn movies that fail in that crucial aspect, and those are the films that can damage one’s morale. I really defy anyone (certainly anyone who reads this blog) not to be entertained by Knight and Day. It’s a ridiculously entertaining movie–especially for spy fans.

*Let me clarify my stance on movie stars. To me, a movie star is different from an actor. A movie star can be an actor, but ultimately it is his or her larger than life persona that carries the film and markets the film rather than his or her performance–no matter how good that might be. When I lament that Cruise and Diaz belong to the last straggling generation of movie stars I am not in any way bemoaning the current state of Hollywood or shaking my walking stick and curmudgeonly declaring, “Nothing is as good today as it used to be!” I’m merely remarking on a changing trend. For decades, movie stars sold action movies: Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise. Now the trend has changed, and actors star in action movies. Very good actors like Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, but not movie stars. Of course the poster boy for this trend is James Bond himself. Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan were all movie stars. (In fact, I’d posit that Connery may be the ultimate movie star.) Daniel Craig is an actor, as was Timothy Dalton before him. But Dalton was before his time; the era of the action-actors hadn’t yet dawned. That seems to be the trend now (and I’m not saying it’s a permanent one, just the prevailing one of the moment) and none of these actors seem likely to achieve Tom Cruise movie star status. And looking at Cruise as an example of how that status can utterly backfire with a few bad PR moves, perhaps that’s a good thing. Whew! That's a rant!


Delmo said...

The warehouse shoot-em-up was in NY.

I would've liked to have seen how Roy Miller/Matt Knight got of the tied upside down predicament myself.

Anonymous said...

I thought the movie was OK...it was mildly entertaining and didn't take itself too seriously.

Since you're a movie buff, tell me this. What hat was Tom Cruise wearing in the diner scene in Boston? It had a B on it, but it definitely wasn't a Red Sox hat. Drop me a note, if you know.