Knight and Day
High-octane Cruise: Star adds spark of anarchy to stylish and fun — albeit brainless — summer action flick ‘Knight and Day’
I’m beginning to think jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch may have been the smartest thing Tom Cruise ever did. That stunt, coupled with assorted other weirdnesses circa 2005, redefined the star’s public persona from real-life action figure to borderline cultural embarrassment, but it’s hard to deny the Teflon Tom image was due for an overhaul. (How many real-life rescues can one actor pull off?) Toward the end of the decade, with his bizarrely hilarious fat-suit cameo in “Tropic Thunder,’’ Cruise acknowledged he was in on at least part of the joke, and the jut-jawed earnestness that had established him as a box-office sure thing had been replaced, for better and for worse, by a new unpredictability.
In “Knight and Day,’’ it’s mostly for the better. The movie’s a piece of high-octane summer piffle: stylish, funny, brainless without being too obnoxious about it, and Cruise is its manic animating principle. Whenever he zigs or zags, the film races to keep up with him, jettisoning cars, helicopters, and human beings as necessary. At the same time, “Knight’’ tweaks the actor’s “Mission Impossible’’ seriousness by giving us Roy Miller, a super-spy so capable it makes him giddy with delight. Roy’s high on himself, and for the first time in a Tom Cruise movie, we’re meant to laugh. “I’m pretty good at what I do, June,’’ he tells the movie’s heroine, and the gag is that for once Roy’s being modest.
Cameron Diaz plays June Havens, a nice, no-nonsense Boston girl — she restores vintage cars for a living and from what I can tell lives in East Boston — who meets Roy on a homebound flight that quickly turns into a neatly choreographed action-movie parody, the agent dispatching a plane full of baddies while June’s in the bathroom, hyperventilating after flirting with him across the aisle. The sequence sets the stakes for “Knight and Day’’ — things happen much too quickly for us normals to take in, there will be casualties, we’re not meant to take them seriously, and whatever happens, Tom’s on top of it.
Roy is a federal agent protecting the film’s twin MacGuffins — a perpetual energy source no bigger than a battery and the doofus young scientist who invented it (Paul Dano with weedy facial hair) — from a team of rogue agents led by Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard, who doesn’t look at all happy to be here). June is collateral baggage forced to come along for the ride after she and Roy meet cute while landing that plane in a cornfield. Believability is not this movie’s strong suit, but fledgling screenwriter Patrick O’Neill and director James Mangold (“Walk the Line,’’ “3:10 to Yuma’’) work like crazy to keep you from caring.
So we’ve got “Romancing the Stone’’ with spies instead of treasure hunters, “Charade’’ with ADD; it’s diverting while you’re watching it and completely forgettable afterward. This is one of Diaz’s better recent roles, though, and it plays to the actress’ strengths of likable comic anxiety and breezy romantic intrigue. It takes awhile, but June gives as good as she gets. One of the movie’s crueler running jokes is that Roy keeps giving her knockout drops to carry her out of the plot’s tighter fixes, and through the haze, she and we catch brief glimpses of absurdly baroque action sequences that hop from plane to parachute to desert island. By the end, June’s not quite Mrs. Smith to his Mr., but she’s enough of an equal to turn the tables in satisfying fashion.
But “Knight’’ is a movie that thinks nothing of dropping its characters in Spain just to run with the bulls and away from the villains, or that indulges our local audiences with a balletic high-speed shoot-out through the highways of downtown Boston. (The fantasy lies not in the flipping cars and trucks but in the notion that any traffic could move this fast on the Southeast Expressway.) After 40 minutes or so of casually destroying our fair city, the movie moves on to Salzburg, Seville, the Azores; tax credits or no, it’s flattering to think we’re in the same league.
Subsidiary characters come and go — Marc Blucas as June’s twerpy firefighter ex-boyfriend, Jordi Mollà as an international arms dealer, Viola Davis as an FBI handler — but they’re as critical to “Knight and Day’’ as the plot line, which is to say not at all. Though the movie feels awfully dumb once the buzz wears off, you may not mind. Cruise is the whole show and Diaz the audience surrogate who gradually gets to play along, and that’s flattering, too. The twinkle in the star’s eye still looks as self-satisfied as always, but there’s a gleam further back, a spark of vaguely disturbing anarchy, that turns the smugness into comedy and that keeps everyone else in “Knight and Day’’ off-balance. Because we’ve seen Tom Cruise go bonkers on “Oprah,’’ we know he’s capable of anything. He knows it, too, and it’s liberating.