Cheerful yet Vaguely Malevolent

Tom Cruise flirts with self-parody in Knight & Day.

So I know we’re supposed to experience each movie objectively as a discrete and isolated entity, but Knight & Day (20th Century Fox) was exactly the wrong movie to see the day after Toy Story 3, a film made with immeasurable quantities of care, conviction, and love. By contrast, Knight & Day cuts so many corners that it’s a surprise there’s any paper left in the middle. This romantic-action-spy-thriller lazily relies on our presumed good will toward its stars, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz; our familiarity with older and better action movies (the Bourne and James Bond series in particular); and our low midsummer expectations.

Whoever read the last draft of the oft-rewritten script never even bothered to check whether the title made sense, which it doesn’t. “Knight,” it eventually comes out, is one of the aliases and possibly the real name of Cruise’s character, who goes by Roy Miller. It would have been easy enough to surname Cameron Diaz’s character “Day” for the sake of parallelism, but instead, she’s June Havens. You can’t help but wonder whether some assistant mentioned this discrepancy in a story meeting, only to be quashed by the confident assertion, “Ah, no one’ll notice!”

That misplaced self-confidence is exactly what’s so aggravating about Roy Miller. He doesn’t need to answer for his motivation, his origins, his reason for being. He just flashes that set of outsized mah-jongg-tile teeth in his disturbingly ageless face and jumps astride another vehicle careening through the streets of Salzburg, or Seville, or wherever the protagonists of this globe-hopping yet strangely incurious travelogue happen to find themselves. Even though Knight & Day wasn’t written for Cruise—a recent Times piece tracked its journey through the hands of Adam Sandler, Chris Tucker, and Gerard Butler—in its final version the film reads as a kind of treatise on the state of Cruise-itude in our time.

The character of Roy Miller is so quintessentially Cruise-ian that he skirts the edges of self-conscious parody. He’s an indestructible superspy who’s bottomlessly cheerful and yet vaguely malevolent. Roy seems to lack any interiority whatsoever; even when he’s telling the truth, he appears to be lying. (Cruise’s most memorable characters have tended to be liars: Jerry Maguire, the kid in Risky Business, the unstable self-help guru in Magnolia.)

This moral ambiguity is a source of considerable confusion to June, who, after boarding a flight on which everyone but she and Roy is mysteriously killed, gets caught up in a web of international intrigue involving a … perpetually self-recharging battery. But Roy’s moral murkiness baffles us, the audience, even more. Long after June has decided to throw caution to the wind and trust this slick, grinning lunatic, we’re still hedging our bets. Should she trust him? After all, this is a guy who, when he has trouble persuading June to accompany him on the next leg of his journey, slips her a roofie and spirits her to the Austrian hotel or uncharted tropic isle of his choice. Though we’re meant to construe Diaz’s character as tough—she’s a tomboyish sort who loves to fix up old cars—June comes off as a remarkably passive heroine, a woman who loves guys who love guns too much. James Mangold, the director of Walk the Lineand 3:10 to Yuma,films action by wildly cutting back and forth, hoping to confuse us into thinking something exciting is going on. Only one stunt, a car chase that takes place in the middle of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, is visually coherent enough to be impressive.

Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise in Knight & Day

And yet … Knight & Day isn’t entirely unlikable. There’s something retro and Saturday-matinee-innocent about its cheerful incoherence and relentless forward motion. Though the body count is very high—when in doubt, Roy Miller just kills everyone on the premises—the PG-13 violence is cartoonish and gore-free. And Diaz can be very funny when given the chance; in a scene where her character has been given a truth serum, she pulls off some screwball ditziness. Otherwise, she spends much of her onscreen time sleeping and screaming. Tom Cruise, for his part, can still dependably produce unlimited quantities of Tom Cruise-ness, a natural resource undiminished and virtually unchanged since its discovery in 1983. The question for the 2010 audience is whether we have any use for it anymore.

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