Thursday, June 24, 2010

Running On Empty: KNIGHT AND DAY

As Knight and Day began, I found myself underwhelmed. Maybe it’ll get better, I told myself. If I hadn’t given up on the movie somewhere about half-way through, I would have been telling that to myself for another hour. But isn’t giving up on a middling movie sometimes liberating? When this particular example, an especially dull action-adventure, reaches its one (yes, one) mildly enjoyable action sequence, I found myself, not enjoying it exactly, but slightly thankful that the whole endeavor had just barely skated over my freshly lowered expectations.

But why should such a promising premise have to go to such waste? It’s sad that it only ever satisfies because it has thoroughly prepared a viewer to expect much less. After all, it stars Tom Cruise. Sure, he’s a little nutty, and everyone thinks he’s lost his mind. That’s what jumping on Oprah’s couch and ranting conspiracy theories earns you these days, I guess. But that didn’t affect my opinion of his work in the last decade. Minority Report, Collateral, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, and Tropic Thunder managed to put him to good, sometimes great, use. With Knight and Day he plays a character that doesn’t seem a stretch from either his public persona or his past roles, stepping easily into the role of a rouge spy who may have experienced a total break with reality. The character is as thin and underdeveloped as it can be without becoming just a cardboard cutout.

He’s in possession of the movie’s MacGuffin – a perpetual energy device invented by a bespectacled Paul Dano – and is consequently on the run from the F.B.I. and a powerful arms dealer. Why are these parties interested in the device? Who plans to use it for what? Why do the characters do anything that they do? I don’t know. How is an audience supposed to care about character or plot when the movie itself can’t even figure out what’s going on?

Most clueless is the character played by Cameron Diaz. It’s not Diaz’s fault – she’s more likable than Cruise and as charming as the movie allows – but it’s just that she’s not a character exactly. She’s drawn into the plot for no other reason than because Cruise likes her. If he really liked her, he would have kept her out of the mayhem that follows their Meet Cute that quickly turns into a crash landing. Besides, she turns out to be less a character and more like a vaguely disguised plot device that can shrilly say and do whatever is necessary to keep the plot moving. Cruise’s character is similarly sketchy and vaguer, but at least he ends up sitting out some of the movie.

While our leads flee vaguely sinister people like Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis, the cast gets involved in coldly unexciting action sequences that are loaded down with CGI and often seem cut short. The actors never seem to be physically present in any of the commotion. It’s almost as if the cast was lazily pasted from an abandoned initial sequence into fresh effects with little thought or planning. Special effects can do amazing things these days, but why don’t they look better here? It’s bad enough that the movie plays like some mishap deleted every third scene, but does it has to look lazy and unconvincing too?

The main perpetrator of this mess, aside from Patrick O’Neill, the half-dozen rewriters, and their screenplay, is director James Mangold. To his credit, the movie often looks quite good when the effects aren’t swirling by, and it flows quickly. It’s not entirely unenjoyable, nor is it interminable. It’s merely clumsily explicated and only half as funny as it thinks it is. I like Mangold. He’s done fine work in the past, creating films that are appreciably better than they could have been. His last two films were the sturdy and compelling Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the fun 3:10 to Yuma remake, films memorable for their great performances, wonderful pacing and perfect middlebrow (I mean that as a compliment) sheen. With Knight and Day, Mangold has made a film that is significantly worse than it should have been, a bland, underwhelming contraption that fits comfortably only in the empty spot on Fox’s release calendar. Luckily for all involved, it’s not memorably atrocious. In fact, it’s just not notable at all.

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