Knight and Day: Mangold’s Silly Action Comedy, Starring Tom Cruise

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Having surveyed moe or less successfully several Hollywood genres, such as the Western (“3:10 to Yuma”), horror (“Identity”), and musical biopic (“Walk the Line”), director James Mangold now turns his attention to a new genre, actually a hybrid, the action-comedy, or the spy romance “Knight and Day”–to decidedly mixed to negative results. 

Over the past several years, there have been a number of pictures of that genre, the most successful of which is still “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and the least entertaining of the cycle is “The Killers,” featuring Ashton Kutcher and Katheryn Heigl (which opened just two weeks ago).

Positioned between these two aforementioned pictures, “Knight and Day” is not the disastrous movie that early reports had indicated due to the long, troubled, overbudgeted production, but it’s decidedly not good, either.

Preposterously plotted, the saga is strangely dominated by long, uneven action sequences, but it lacks any logic and pays minimal attention to issues of characterization, of both the lead and supporting performers.  Repetitive in structure, and with humor that more often than not misses the mark,” Knight and Day” is characterized by nihilistic violence and amoral tone; in the course of the film, Cruise shoots and hills at least three dozen people. These issues wouldn’t have mattered much had the movie been genuinely witty or real fun to watch.

“Knight and Day” is a quintessentially Hollywood star vehicle for Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Cruise, in another desperate effort to revitalize his dwindling career, plays covert agent Roy Miller, and Diaz is the femme fatale, a sexy blonde caught between him and those he claims set him up. 

The picture, touted as Cruise’s comeback, after a number of disappointing films, but I doubt whether it  would do much good for either career. The commercial prospects for this fluffy, inconsequntial summer fare, which was made for young to middle-aged viewers, are moderate but not stupendous, even ifhere is nothing at the moment in the market place by way of competition.

Narratively, the cutely titled, mindless flick is a mishmash of romantic adventures, which tries but fails to emulate such classics as Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, or “Charade,” with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention globetrotting sagas such as the James Bond movies, or “Romancing the Stones,” and more recently the “Bourne” franchise.

The link between some of these movies is offered by John Powell, who has composed the score for “The Bourne trilogy,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Italian Job,” among others. 

Thematically, the adventure deals with false identities, double-crosses, arrests and close escapes, with a layer of forced eroticism poured over these largely unconvincing elements.Even by movie standards, Patrick O’Neill’s original screenplay does not make any sense. Worse yet, it does not make any effort to involve the viewers in the characters’ fate, because they know from the first scene that in this kind of picture there are no real risks to the protagonists, not even a chance that their meticulous make up and hairstyle will be messed up.

The story moves at a breakneck speed, as if to conceal the incongruities in the storytelling. The basic premise revolves around secret agent Roy Miller sending the life of the ordinary-seeming girl, June Havens on a detour. Indeed, the first challenge that Cameron Diaz faces as an actress is to look ordinary (sort of the girl-next-door), which she meets uite effectively.  At 37, Diaz is one of the few actresses in Hollywood who could look ordinary and sexy, ditzy and smart, dependent and strong.

It all begins at an airport (where else), when June is a bout board a plane in Wichita, Kansas on her way to her younger sister’s wedding. Bumping into each other, not once but twice, the couple begins chatting, with Roy doing extra-work to charm June. Is their meeting the hand of fate, luck, or coincidence? 

Minutes later, while June goes to the bathroom, to fix her already-perfect make-up, Roy engages in fistfights and gun shooting with the few passengers and pilots aboard the plane. When June rejoins her, he offers champagne, and they continue to talk about their respective fantasy vacations.  Their chit-chat is interrupted, when the plan begins hurtling and then crash-lands into a cornfield in the middle of nowhere.  The two emerge unscathed and the plane goes up in flames, leaving no evidence of the crew or passengers that were aboard.

Without even a second to catch her breath, June finds herself being pursued around the globe–dodging bullets in Boston, leaping rooftops in Austria, and running from bulls in Seville, among many locations.

June, like the viewers, continues to wonder about Roy Miller’s real identity, up to the end.  Is he a ruthless killer? (yes and no, depending on the chapter). Is he unstable (yes and no)? Is he paranoid (yes and no)? Is he essentially a good guy, serving the interests of his country (yes and no)? Can she trust him (yes and no)?

Is Roy courteous, alluring, and chivalrous (yes and yes)? You see, Roy is the kind of gentleman who in the midst of life-or-death situations has the time to pause and pay a compliment (to June’s yellow dress), or flatter her growing skills, or simply instructs her what to do and what not to do. (Most of the key words June has to pay attention to begin with S: security, safety, stability).

The filmmakers try to turn one of the tale’s major weaknesses, how does Roy escape from one dangerous situation to another, into a running motif.  To carry the story from one locale to another, Roy often drugs June, so that in the next segment, she can wake up in bed, after a presumably good night sleep. In one of these many occasions, June finds herself in a sexy red bikini in a resort island, while the macho and nature boy Roy brings a fresh fish from the ocean.  What begins as a lovely picnic on the neach (and homage to James Bond) quickly turns into yet another chase and escape from a shooting helicopter, an idea that’s clearly taken from Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” 

Doing many of his own stunts, Tom Cruise looks fit and acts competently, but he is not Cary Grant.  Lacking the smoth, effortless touch necessary to pull off his ever-shifting character, Cruise is particularly weak in delivering the romantic scenes, which is labored and leaves much to be desired.  Curiously, Cruise is a star who has always lacked strong erotic appeal with his leading ladies (even with Nicole Kidman, his wife while he was appearing in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”).  

Counting on her natural charm and great physique, Cameron Diaz comes across better in a part that calls for her to change attitude and conduct (can she trust Roy or nor?) from scene to scene.  In general, the two stars generate more chemistry and rapport in their action sequences than in their romantic interludes (which are almost always interrupted by shooting and bullets). 

Clearly written for two major stars, the scenario neglects all the secondary characters, which are not only underdeveloped but, like the leads, seem to appear (and disappear) at a whim. And the fact that they are populated by good actors, such as Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Jordi Molla, and Paul Dano makes it all the more frustrating.

The director of photography Phedon Papamichael gives the saga a slick, glamorous look, particularly when the couple spends some “quality time” among bullets in spectacular locations. Pity editor Michael McCusker, who has to connect (or rather patch up) incongruous chapters and sequences that jump randomly from one location to another.

The film’s title, like everything else about it, is arbitrary and meaningless.