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Jason Wallis Mindless summer action flick ‘Knight and Day’ on Cruise control

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Posted: Saturday, July 3, 2010 12:00 am

Well, it’s been another bummer of a week at the movies (unless, of course, you’re a 10-year-old girl, in which case the debut of “Twilight: Eclipse” probably made it the highlight of your year).

Next week doesn’t look much better, so in a last-ditch effort to avoid M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender,” we may be looking at Michael Winterbottom’s promising indie, “The Killer Inside Me,” next week.

Wide releases start looking up after that with producer Robert Rodriguez’s hard-R “Predators” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which certainly has the pedigree to be one of the season’s — and year’s — best films. Let’s keep hope alive, and if you get too down, my advice: Go see “Toy Story 3” again. It is without a trace of irony that I hail it as perhaps one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and it’s certainly not one that you want to miss on the big screen.

“Knight and Day”

** (out of four)

2010, James Mangold, U.S., PG-13

The numbers are in, and Tom Cruise is in trouble. Despite a high-profile attempt to soften his image prior to the release of “Knight and Day” (a PR move that resulted in a barely funny appearance at the MTV Movie Awards, and studio approval for an entirely unnecessary Les Grossman feature film — let’s see how far that gets now), widespread public scorn for Cruise and his particular brand of aggressive insanity has apparently proved impermeable. His latest would-be blockbuster, “Knight and Day,” had a domestic five-day opening of just $27 million — the worst since “Days of Thunder” 20 years ago, and even longer than that if you adjust ticket prices for inflation. But no matter how you work the math, one simple fact remains: Cruise has fallen off the A-list.

I lament this, because even though I recognize that Cruise is not a well man, and sympathize with those who find his off-camera shenanigans too much to tolerate, I still think he’s one of the most talented and naturally charismatic major actors working in Hollywood. When we think of Cruise’s work we tend to think of movies like “Top Gun” and “Mission: Impossible,” but I think that if people focused more on his better films and performances, like “Rain Man,” “A Few Good Men,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and especially “Magnolia,” they might perceive him as something more than a past-his-prime heartthrob who worships aliens and eats human placentas or whatever.

Unfortunately, “Knight and Day” does little to support my defense of Cruise. Of course, the man is likable as Roy Miller, a rogue federal agent who becomes embroiled with a young woman, June Havens (Cameron Diaz, reteaming with Cruise after their more successful pairing in 2001’s “Vanilla Sky”), as he goes on the lam from his potentially malevolent superiors. Yet when it’s not wrapped up in an otherwise well-written, adequately developed role, it turns out that Cruise’s innate likeability doesn’t go too far. It may be a pleasure to watch him mug for the camera and deliver one-liners with ease and confidence, but since he shares very little chemistry with co-star Diaz, the whole thing feels rather perfunctory.

The lackluster screenplay was written by newcomer Patrick O’Neill, and it’s not a surprise to find that this is his feature debut. The script feels like a fleshed-out pitch rather than a proper screenplay, and the story consists of little more than Roy and June trotting across the globe as she displays her gross incompetence and he saves her neck time and again. (If this sounds like “The Killers” to you, that’s because it is.) The supporting players are cardboard cut-outs, and when you’re crafting characters for award-caliber actors like Peter Sarsgaard and Paul Dano (both absolutely wasted in under-developed token roles), you have a certain responsibility to tweak the script and allow some room for their roles to expand and find their natural place in the story. O’Neill treats everything except the action and romantic banter as an after-thought — a disastrous approach to take when your action is unimaginative and your romantic interplay rings hollow.

There’s nothing particularly offensive about the action sequences in “Knight and Day,” in an aesthetic sense, and they certainly beat the pants off anything found in recent action flicks like “The Losers” and “The A-Team.” But everything feels too neat, too choreographed, too nakedly planned to offer the viewer any real thrills or excitement. It doesn’t help that about half of the action scenes take place off-screen while either Roy or June are incapacitated, a structural trick that I’m sure was supposed to come off as clever and coy but instead seems insufferably lazy and, I would argue, completely unnecessary — kinda like the rest of the movie.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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