With the promise of action and charm from its two leads, Knight and Day follows in the foot steps of other films that are meant only to get people out of the heat and into the air conditioning of summer. However, the film should be praised for both living squarely inside a box marked “clever distraction,” and for trying to push its way out of that cardboard mold. Unfortunately, praise is not all that it’s due.June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is trying to make it back home to Boston when she bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise), a secret agent who has gone rogue with something very important to the federal government. As much as he tries to avoid her becoming a part of the game, she ends up either having to be glued to his side or taken out by some very bad men. The two will have to secure a young inventor (Paul Dano) and expose or kill the true rogue agent before it’s too late.
High concept stuff like this is usually a connect-the-dots version of filmmaking, and there are a lot of elements here that seem like they were looked up in the Screenwriters Dictionary. The characters, when they can, do their best to keep it light and distract from the fact that the chase scenes and momentum is the same we’ve seen from almost every spy movie out there (including a few that Cruise has been in before). At some points, the movie dances right up to the line of parody, but instead of crossing it boldly, the situations or shots end up simply looking like bad filmmaking.
This isn’t aided by how cheap the movie looks. A distracting amount of CGI looks like it was slapped on with an old brush – most noticeably the car sequences, which look like an updated version of the old green screen technique which found Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart doing the cabbage patch on the steering wheel while the car was going straight forward. Substitute Tom Cruise for Grant, gunfire for the cabbage patch, and stock footage of the city, and you’ll start to get the idea.
Those scenes seem in direct conflict with some capably shot action that genuinely evokes the gasp for air that a good explosion should. Plus, director James Mangold and company do something different with a handful of those scenes: taking a look at the action from the point of view of June’s character, a character completely trapped by circumstance. There is enough action to satiate (in fact, the whole movie is basically action), but in the beginning, much of the action happens from strange angles. Back seats of cars, off to the side just barely in view, from around a corner. It places the viewer right in the mindset of someone who’s effectively been kidnapped and tossed into a reality where grenades are the norm, and it works incredibly well. The ingenuity alone should be applauded, but pulling it off deserves a slow clap and a round of champagne.
Unfortunately, the experimentation of the film doesn’t stop there. There’s a particular plot device which also thrusts the viewer into June’s position, and it’s intriguing, but it makes the film choppy in an unforgivable way and often feels like the Lazy Man’s Plot Fix. It’s the kind of pacing issue that Mangold ran into with Identity, and it’s enough to make this movie feel more like Knight and Day, Interrupted.
As for Cruise and Diaz, this isn’t the first time they’ve worked on screen together, but they come off as far too cold. Each seems to have lost some of the original spark that first drew audiences to them, and it makes an otherwise brisk movie drag like it’s carrying a dying career carcass behind it. When the two do find that spark, the movie is full of life and eyebrow-raising moments, but too many times the pair seems to want to go through the bullet-dodging motions in order to get to the scenes that they’re actually looking forward to. Simply put – it’s always good to see actors having fun, but it’s torture to see actors working.
It’s a shame because so much of the movie rests on their shoulders. Cruise carries himself for the most part like the captain of the football team who knows you’re supposed to automatically like him and do his homework for him when he bats his eyes. Diaz comes off as a too-desperate single woman (which works great in the beginning), but she trips over what seemed to come naturally in movies like the Charlie’s Angels series. There are a few great scenes and one-liners, but they are too few and far between, and the rest of the script comes off as if writer Patrick O’Neil promised himself he’d fill in the clever stuff later and never got around to it.
In a way, it all feels like the forced prequel to a series of successful romantic spy movies starring two actors who are already burned out on the characters they made audiences love.
The side characters, played by Peter Sarsgaard (with an unnecessary Southern accent), Viola Davis, and a frantic Paul Dano work wonders to help raise the film, but even they aren’t given particularly all that much to work with. Except Dano, who gets a panic disorder and a fantastic mustache that I assume will become the next big facial trend.
Overall, it’s a little more than the lock, stock and trade action movie. It should be cheered for what it attempts and gets right, and cheered slightly less for what it attempts and gets wrong. However, at some point, Mangold should have grabbed Cruise and Diaz by the ears, shaken them, and reminded them that breathing life into the characters was more important than checking their watch.
The Upside: Some scenes that stand out, some fresh ideas that work, and some solid action.
The Downside: Acting is hit or miss, some fresh ideas that don’t work, and the best CGI of 1999.
On the Side: The film was at one point called Wichita, which is a far better name for it considering that the current title is a pun that applies about as much to the film as Starry Knight or Tender is the Knight does.