*Knight and Day (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
This month, there has been much talk in film circles about how Killers, the recently released and generally pilloried Ashton Kutcher/Katherine Heigl film, had a premise strikingly similar to that of Knight and Day.
But here's the reality of storytelling: It's all been done. We've seen the unwitting innocent dragged along on life-threatening adventures plenty of times before Killers or Knight and Day. We saw it in True Lies. We saw it in The In-Laws — twice. Hell, we've even seen it with Tom Cruise in Collateral; just imagine Jamie Foxx's character as a hot blonde. Nothing is more over-valued or less important than "the concept" in determining whether a movie works.
Execution is everything — and it's why Knight and Day is so unexpectedly satisfying. Here our dragged-along innocent is June Havens (Cameron Diaz), a woman who literally bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) in the airport en route to Wichita, Kan. The encounter isn't random, of course: Roy needs to hide something in June's luggage to pass through security. But how many other things is he hiding?
It's entirely possible that, much like The A-Team, Knight and Day could have been a blast simply on the basis of its set pieces. Director James Mangold keeps stringing together wonderfully over-the-top sequences from screenwriter Patrick O'Neill's script. From the opening airplane fistfight, to the first wild car chase, to a motorcycle dash from raging Spanish bulls, Knight and Day plays out like a James Bond movie from the Roger Moore days: too busy inspiring smiles to generate concerns about plausibility.
But Knight and Day also delivers twists that make you realize you're in the hands of people who know what the hell they're doing.
One brilliant example is a sequence halfway through in which June — drugged by Roy to spare her panic when they're captured by an arms dealer — regains consciousness periodically during an elaborate escape attempt. We see only snippets: Roy hanging upside-down while calmly reassuring June; an impromptu skydive; a speedboat ride. It's a wonderful case-study of what can emerge when filmmakers understand entertainment comes just as much from what you hide as from what you show.
There is, naturally, a romantic-comedy component, and Vanilla Sky co-stars Cruise and Diaz prove they're a pairing with chemistry. Cruise is best in roles that ask him to be loose and frisky, and here he shows more charm on screen than he has in years. Diaz makes her character's fundamental competence — June's freak-outs are occasional seasoning — a convincing trait. Though neither character is fully developed, despite attempts at a sympathetic back-story for Roy, what little we know is enough to carry us through.
Still, as Knight and Day nears the two-hour mark, it does begin to feel that the parade of action beats may overstay its welcome. There's also a missed opportunity to do more with Peter Sarsgaard (as Roy's equally enigmatic adversary) and Paul Dano (as a precocious young scientist tagging along). But Mangold, O'Neill and company definitely nail danger as an aphrodisiac, and the kineticism of a situation gone out of control.
As Roger Ebert once famously noted, what matters in a movie is how it's about what it's about. And this is how you make the familiar feel fresh.