'Knight and Day': Too Much Nonsense for One Movie

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Twentieth Century Fox


First, a clarification regarding the title of the newly released action-comedy Knight and Day: "Knight" refers either to a) the long-abandoned family name of one of the two principal characters, a glamorous superspy played by Tom Cruise who, for all narrative and promotional purposes, now goes by the name "Roy Miller"; or b) a small toy paladin in which a Secret Device that Could Change the World is briefly hidden. And "Day"? One might imagine that it refers to the spunky everygal played by costar Cameron Diaz. One would be wrong. (Her character's name is "June Havens.") In fact, it doesn't refer to anything at all; the word's sole purpose is to balance the already-a-stretch "Knight." I mean honestly. If we had to go down this path at all, why not A Knight to Remember, or Knight Moves? The titillating PG-13 innuendo of A Knight in June? Or, with appropriate legal representation on call, Darkest Knight? But no, for no discernable reason outside the preferences of some anonymous focus group, we're given Knight and Day, Cole Porter be damned.

A film that treats its own title so, ahem, cavalierly can hardly be expected to be diligent when it comes to such niceties as plot, character, and pacing--but Knight and Day exceeds even such anti-expectations. It is woefully scattered, alternatingly slack and frenetic, and transcendently preposterous. Remarkably, it is also, for a time, reasonably diverting for anyone willing to jettison everything they know about love, espionage, and narrative cohesion.

The tale begins at the Wichita airport, where we meet June and learn exactly two things about her: first, that she restores vintage muscle cars (so males in the audience will find her irresistible); and second, that she has a bad case of little-sister-getting-married-before-her (so females in the audience will find her sympathetic). On her way through security, June repeatedly runs into Roy, himself a fetching grin sandwiched between windbreaker and sunglasses. June is bumped from her flight but is subsequently put back on it, only to discover there are just a handful of passengers on the plane, Roy included. (The reasons for June's bumping and de-bumping are obscure, an early sign that the screenplay--credited to newcomer Patrick O'Neill, but subsequently rewritten by half a dozen others--will not infrequently be divided against itself.) June and Roy flirt lightly until she visits the lavatory, at which point the other passengers, along with both pilots and the navigator, all try to assassinate Roy. Happily, he is much better at this kind of thing than they are, so he kills them instead, crash lands the jet himself, warns June about the nameless baddies who will soon come looking, and gently drugs her. She wakes the next morning in her own bed, with friendly Roy-notes offering life-saving advice scattered around her apartment.

To describe such plotting as ridiculous might sprain the term itself. Yet, for those of generous spirit and easily suspended disbelief (you may wish to re-read the previous paragraph before deciding whether you qualify), the first few reels of Knight and Day offer a kind of giddy, kinetic nonsense. Cruise, still eager to erase his image as self-serious Scientologist and overplayed inamorata, punctures his longstanding action persona with sly wit and self-effacing charm. (Where has this fellow been since Risky Business?) And Diaz gets more mileage than one would imagine from her otherwise exhausted role as the bubbly-but-tough innocent bystander/eventual love interest. The two are even supplied with a handful of moderately inspired gags, the best of which doubles as an ingenious way to cut down on the studio costs of a big aerial escape scene. As backup, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, and Paul Dano offer above-average spins on the Scheming Turncoat, the Hardnosed Spymaster, and the Good-Natured Geek, respectively.

But in the end--or, rather, by the midpoint--it's not enough. Over time, the script's internal confusions become too vivid to ignore. (In particular, a subplot in which Roy, ostensibly for June's safety, contrives to have her captured by the very people he has claimed want her dead, achieves a level of logic-melting idiocy.) Worse, nearly every half-memorable joke in the film is told a second time, and in some cases a third--a textbook demonstration that recycling is not always a virtue. By the finale, it's hard to shake the sense that the movie has already expired, and everyone involved--Cruise, Diaz, director James Mangold, the battalion of screenwriters--are just trying to prop it up, Weekend at Bernie's-style, long enough to heave it over the 100-minute mark.

What is perhaps most dispiriting about Knight and Day is what it suggests about Hollywood and the comedy-thriller-romance subgenre, a hybrid once responsible for such ineffable delights as Charade and To Catch a Thief. Last year's marquee attempt, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, boasted the requisite intelligence but lacked the enlivening ebullience. Knight and Day, by contrast, fails more typically. Nimble enough on its feet when cars are crashing and bullets whizzing--Cruise and Diaz's best scenes almost all take advantage of the incongruity of conversation at such moments--it has no idea at all what a man and woman might talk about when deprived of such violent backdrops. When the action slows, the dialogue, which ought to pick up pace, stalls as well. ("Fitz set me up.... That's when I met you," he tells her; "Who are you, really?" she asks him.)

Like 2005's Mr. and Mrs. Smith, another film that began with the promise of romantic chemistry before veering onto the easier (and more lucrative) terrain of body-count, Knight and Day is vastly more at ease with the bang-bang than the kiss-kiss, let alone any talk-talk. Relatively early in the proceedings, June begs of Roy, "Please stop shooting people, okay? Just stop shooting people." It's a plea viewers may share--one that, inevitably, goes unheeded.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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