Knight and Day, in the tradition of the great adventure comedies of the past, like North By Northwest, or The African Queen, positions all of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of its capable stars. While Tom Cruise doesn’t quite have the presence of a Bogart or a Grant, he sells the film with his charm. The result is a refreshingly breezy and tongue-in-cheek summer picture that hooks the audience with its winning and charismatic pairing of an energized Cruise and a dreamy, eager-to-follow Cameron Diaz. It’s as implausible as any Michael Bay action flick and as naïve about real human drama as a typical romantic comedy, but it works because we want to follow these characters and when seen through their eyes, the thrilling stuff actually manages to thrill. Go figure.
Written by: Nathan Bartlebaugh
Knight and Day (PG-13) Directed by: James Mangold. Written by: Starring: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Saarsgard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Marc Blucas. Original Music: Cinematography:
Roy Miller, Cruise’s suave and batty special agent, runs into slightly daffy June Haven (Diaz) at the airport—literally smashes into her—while she’s on her way in search of car parts to renovate her father’s vintage GTO. June smiles, takes in the handsome devil-may-care vibe from Miller, and assumes their chance encounter is the end of it. Some short time later, she’s running for her life with Roy, who’s apparently gone rogue and is being pursued by the nefarious Agent Fitzgerald (Peter Saarsgard) who wants to retrieve something from him called ‘The Zephyr’.
The Zephyr is a proper movie mcguffin, as perfectly tuned to the rather vague needs of the plot as those of Hitchcock’s day, and Knight doesn’t stop with revealing its function. The audience also gets to meet the Zephyr’s nerdy, socially challenged inventor; the child-like Simon Feck (Paul Dano with a ridiculous fake mustache), who goes on the list of stuff Roy needs to protect when the bad guys find out he’s got the info they need. Feck is mostly an afterthought, but he proves useful for helping explain changes in the Zephyr’s function, and he makes a good hostage when the bad guys need to coerce Ray into playing ball.
After a few highly amusing action set pieces (one on the highway and another aboard an commercial airliner that has just lost its entire crew), the script sends Diaz and Cruise on a whirlwind, globe-trotting trip that sees them hurtling on a train through Austria or trying to outrun computer animated bulls on a motorcycle in Spain. All around them things are exploding, and slowly Ray and Jane are being pulled into one another’s orbit. She might not be able to trust him, and it’s never clear why he’s being so protective of her, but somewhere in the middle they come together out of the mutual need to not get shot.
Ray looks invincible here, but as an actor Cruise is sowing seeds of vulnerability into the character under his action man bravado. When he first meets Diaz, he shares his list of things he’s always wanted to do, if things were different. As the film progresses, we see the list goes deeper than Ray would let on.
As a story, Knight and Day is completely silly. This is not an indictment or a criticism, because the entire enterprise is founded on the idea that the adventures of Roy Miller and June Havens are just a delirious fever dream of action clichés. Mangold, great at fine-tuning and crafting genre throwbacks (see the underrated Identity and the rightly rated 3:10 to Yuma) builds this conceptually into the atmosphere and the performances right from the get-go.
A great example takes place on that plane in the beginning; June is in the bathroom, rehearsing her come-ons to Roy, and trying to muster her courage. When she emerges from the bathroom, Cruise is just sitting there, slightly shaken with a drink in his hand. She’s intent on making her ardor known, he’s recovering from a massive battle he just had with all of the flight’s passengers (undercover agents). When bodies start falling out of their seats and Cruise is playfully explaining how they will need to land the plane because he inadvertently shot the captain, Diaz’s slowly dawning realization is one of inconvenience, not terror. This would be white-knuckle stuff in a different film, but in Knight and Day it’s played for pure amusement.
That’s what this movie is; one big amusement. The plot moves Roy and June in and out of one adventure after the other, and all the while it’s creating a context for Cruise and Diaz to play off of and draw out the individual strengths and quirks that made them popular in the first place. For instance, I’ve never fully realized just how well Cruise can diffuse moments of over-the-top action. He seems plausible enough driving between those stampeding bulls or when falling cheerfully out of the sky onto the windshield of a speeding car. Diaz has a great smile and her facial features are called on here to expand with good-natured exasperation after each new ridiculous predicament.
Saarsgard, Viola Davis and Dano are all fine in their roles, but they, like the special effects, all take a backseat to Cruise and Diaz. James Mangold has directed Knight and Day as a wind-up toy, and once he’s got everything humming along at a speedy clip, he gets out of his actors way and lets them do the kind of work they have based their careers on. Cruise in particular, seems to be reaching back some 15 years and connecting with his more self-assured, but less grave, persona. Diaz has always been a charmer, but here she’s channeling a kind of disconnected dreamer that matches up with her on-screen identity better than the kinds of characters she’s been playing lately.
I’ve perhaps downplayed the impact of the action and Mangold’s direction of it, but the truth is that Knight and Day has more than its fair share of adrenaline pumping scenes. There’s a real geography and sense of kinetic motion in the hand-to-hand fights and car chases. Instead of witnessing the impact for every crushed hand, gunshot, or car crash, we often see the precisely timed moments that come after them. We aren’t watching Tom Cruise jumping off a falling motorcycle over the turnpike. Instead we see the cycle go up the ramp, and then boom!, there’s Roy smiling on the front of the car. The same goes for a series of escapades on a train later in the movie that evokes James Bond or maybe the Bourne movies. The much ballyhooed ‘running of the bulls’ might be made of cgi, but I enjoyed the logistics of seeing the animals colliding with vehicles and spilling out into the Spanish streets like a pulsing, dark tide.
Although it isn’t a perfect home run–there are far too many interludes of characters passing out and waking up in new locations– and the plot is simply too thin for the running time, Knight and Day is a superior entry in the romantic espionage genre, and in the rather tepid movie summer of 2010, it could almost be classified as a must see. Reminding us why we liked them in the first place, it earns the admission price by giving us Cruise and Diaz together onscreen, outpacing the explosions.