Knight and Day feels like the product of a different era. And no, I’m not just talking about the 1990s, when star Tom Cruise was a legitimate box office draw and not an ever-smiling kook with an uncanny knack for making people feel uncomfortable. Knight and Day seems like a leftover screenplay from the classic Hollywood studio system. I picture a rotund 1930s film exec chomping on a cigar, elatedly throwing the script in the air and exclaiming “I love it! We’ll film it on the lot next week. Someone call Howard Hawks, and go grab the two prettiest actors you can find. We’re gonna make a moo-vie!”
Such is the old-school charm of Knight and Day. Yes, this film is charming, despite featuring two of the most abrasive actors working today. That probably sounds like an insult, but I sure don’t mean it that way. Stars Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise love to work their respective shticks, and by now you’ve made up your mind as to whether you can endure them or not. While I’m mostly tired of the former, I make no apologies for adoring the latter. Cruise’s filmography is one of the most impressive and varied of any actor working today (Magnolia, Collateral, Eyes Wide Shut, Minority Report), and despite his increasingly bizarre personal life, he displays true commitment to each of his roles. Here, I found him as likable as he’s been in years. After watching Knight and Day, you might feel the same as I do (provided the endless smiling doesn’t put you off).
The film doesn’t have characters per se. That’s what the actors are for. Cameron Diaz may play June Havens, but she’s really playing “The Cameron Diaz Type”, a pretty/flighty woman who finds herself both perturbed and enamoured with Roy Miller (“The Tom Cruise Type”), a toothy, overly-friendly fellow that might actually be insane. Roy claims he is a CIA operative on the run from his corrupt partner (Peter Sarsgaard) and his determined boss (Viola Davis). They claim he’s a crazed rogue agent trying to kill young genius Simon Feck (Paul Dano), who has created the world’s first perpetual energy battery. Since being caught in the middle of an ill-fated flight from Wichita and swept into Roy’s life of espionage, June hasn’t had a moment to consider who may be right or wrong. All she knows is she likes being in this action-packed world, even if it might get her killed.
In the classic Hollywood system, there was little room for directors to make their unique mark. Provided your last name wasn’t Wilder or Hitchcock, the studio expected you to leave the set as soon as you’d finished telling the DP where to point the camera. And in that spirit, Fox have hired the perfectly bland James Mangold – a former indie filmmaker who now churns out solid, if uninspired fare – to helm Knight and Day. And Knight and Day is indeed solid, if uninspired fare. Despite cribbing from Hitch’s wrong-man movies (right down to the Saul Bass inspired poster art), Mangold brings nothing particularly interesting to proceedings. I understand why. The screenplay has passed through so many hands (I won’t even attempt to credit any of the supposed writers), only God knows what dull iteration of the script Mangold was handed. No doubt he assumed the heavy-lifting in this character-free film would be left with the actors. He simply sits back to allow Cruise and Diaz to Grant-and-Saint one another.
That being said, Cruise and Diaz make the experience as painless as possible. It’s interesting to think back to a decade ago, when they played a very different couple in Cameron Crowe’s underrated Vanilla Sky. They share a natural chemistry, and their back and forth seems genuinely effortless, which is a rarity in modern romantic comedies (see: anything starring Katherine Heigl, anything starring Gerard Butler, and especially anything starring the both of them). There are more than a few laughs to be had during the film’s brisk run time, which more than compensates for the disappointing action sequences. Perhaps they were really trying to evoke the old Hollywood with the atrocious CGI seen throughout most of the film. The effects team seem to go out of their way to make the actors look as if they are constantly standing in front of a green screen. Even the simple task of having them sit in a car as it slowly cruises along a highway looks about as unconvincing as it did back in the 30s.
I’m not sure whether we should commend the film for casting talented actors such as Viola Davis, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano and Chelcie Ross (who plays a generic CIA officer), or chastise it for wasting them in almost non-existent supporting roles. Everyone, as well as Mangold, is forced to take a backseat to Cruise and Diaz. As I mentioned, I believe they alone are able to deliver a perfectly enjoyable, although instantly forgettable film. Your enjoyment will truly depend on your patience for the two leads. It’s interesting that Diaz’s character views Roy Miller the same way many people view Cruise himself. He seems perfectly amiable, but there is an inherent creepiness behind that smile. Does he know something we don’t, or is he seriously out of his mind? Until Cruise stars in a truly bad film, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Knight and Day opens across Australia July 15th.