But here’s the reality of storytelling, whether cinematic or otherwise: It’s all been done. We’ve seen the premise of the unwitting innocent dragged along on a life-threatening adventure plenty of times before Killers and 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 before, in Collateral; just imagine where the plot might have gone if Jamie Foxx’s character had instead been a hot blonde. Nothing is more overvalued in Hollywood than “the concept,” and nothing ultimately matters less to how the movie turns out.
Execution is everything—and it’s why Knight and Day is so unexpectedly satisfying. Our dragged-along innocent is June Havens (Cameron Diaz), a Boston woman who literally bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) in the airport while heading home from Wichita, Kan. The encounter is not at all random, of course; Roy has something he needs to hide in June’s luggage to get it through security. But, how many other things is he hiding? Is he the good guy, a government agent trying to protect a technological breakthrough from the international black market? Or is he a nut case gone rogue? And will the answer make any difference to just how dead June might end up?
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—who hasn’t really done much action, with the exception of a few chunks of 3:10 to Yuma—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 rampaging Spanish bulls, Knight and Day plays out like a James Bond movie the way they were back in the Roger Moore days: too likely to inspire goofy smiles to generate concerns about plausibility.
But Knight and Day also delivers some of those little twists that make you realize you’re in the hands of people who really know what the hell they’re doing. There’s no better example than a brilliant sequence about halfway through, in which June—drugged by Roy to spare her panic when they’re captured by a villainous arms dealer—regains consciousness periodically throughout an elaborate escape attempt. We see only snippets of what goes on: Roy hanging upside down while calmly reassuring June; an impromptu skydive; a ride on a speedboat. And it turns into a wonderful case study for what can emerge from filmmakers who understand that entertainment can come just as much from what you’re hiding as from what you’re showing.
There is, naturally, a predictable romantic-comedy component to all of this, and Vanilla Sky co-stars Cruise and Diaz prove to be a pairing with plenty of chemistry. Cruise is always at his best in roles that ask him to be loose and frisky, which he pulls off here with more charm than he’s shown on screen in years (his Tropic Thunder/MTV Movie Awards cameos notwithstanding). Diaz makes her character’s fundamental competence—June’s occasional freak-outs are the seasoning, rather than the meal—a convincing part of the story’s foundation. Neither character is developed with much depth, despite attempts at a sympathetic back story for Roy, but what little we do know proves to be enough to carry us through.
It does begin to feel, as Knight and Day nears the two-hour mark, that the parade of action beats is beginning to overstay its welcome. There’s also a real missed opportunity to do more with Peter Sarsgaard (as Roy’s equally enigmatic adversary) and Paul Dano (as a precocious young scientist along for the ride). But Mangold, O’Neill and company definitely nail danger as an aphrodisiac and the kineticism of a situation gone wildly 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.
KNIGHT AND DAY
Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard