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Knight and Day (2010)

Even though I still have no idea what the title means, I enjoyed Knight and Day a lot. It blends cheerful, good-natured comedic moments with some very impressive action sequences much more successfully than the similar Killers. More to the point, it’s exactly what a summer popcorn movie should be: fun.

Tom Cruise has made a career out of cultivating a super-cool, super-confident, super-charming persona. In Knight and Day, he mines some big laughs by taking that persona into the realm of sociopathy. His Roy Miller is little more than a variation on Cruise’s Mission: Impossible character, Ethan Hunt, but he lacks the self-awareness to realize an “average” person like June (Cameron Diaz) won’t respond well to his smiling proclamation that he’s murdered a planeload of people, including the pilot and copilot. Painting the Cruise persona as borderline insane is risky, but it pays off really well.

The setup is convoluted: June is on her way home to Boston for her sister’s wedding. At the airport, she meets Roy, who switches her boarding pass for a later flight. For reasons not immediately known, a cadre of CIA agents is monitoring Roy. They see the switch and conclude Roy and June are working together, so they allow June to board Roy’s flight, which is filled with assassins (including the flight crew). Roy and June bond quickly, but that’s before Roy kills everyone on the plane but her. Not surprisingly, she freaks out. She continues to freak out as Roy lands the plane in the middle of a cornfield, blows it up, and drugs June. She wakes in Boston, thinking it was a very odd dream.

From there, the story plays out with June as a comedic version of a Hitchcock hero: she’s in over her head, she doesn’t know what’s going on, but she has to keep trying to figure it out until people stop shooting at her. She teams up with Roy, who explains that a CIA conspiracy has made it look like he’s gone rogue and is trying to sell “the Zephyr” (a AA-sized battery that can power a small city perpetually) to terrorists. Later, she learns from a pair of CIA agents (Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis) that Roy is a professional liar who really has gone rogue. June has to figure out who’s telling the truth and how to get through this ordeal without dying or getting the Zephyr’s inventor (Paul Dano) killed.

The plot may seem complicated, but it breezes along at such a rapid clip, it doesn’t matter much if details get missed along the way. Screenwriter Peter O’Neill takes the script just seriously enough to keep it engaging, but not so seriously that it loses its sense of fun and becomes a leaden, brooding character piece. The bravura action sequences include an exhilarating expressway chase that left me with my jaw hanging on the floor, impressed by the combination of stunts and special effects. It’s not often that I’m truly awed by a piece of filmmaking—especially one driven by special effects—but this was outstanding. Nothing else in the movie quite matches the expressway chase, but the other action sequences have enough suspense and entertainment value to make it worth watching.

Tom Cruise does typically great work here, a consummate movie star playing a funny version of his usual performance. Diaz has never impressed me much before, but she also does a great job of anchoring the movie with a hilariously flummoxed, neurotic turn. Cruise and Diaz share such great chemistry, it surprises me they’ve never been paired up before. (Vanilla Sky doesn’t count—in addition to being a terrible movie, Diaz barely exists in it after she sets up the stupid, stupid plot.) The top-notch supporting players—notably Dano, pseudo-villain Jordi Mollà, and Marc Blucas as June’s firefighter ex-boyfriend—add a great deal to thankless roles, demonstrating what great actors can do to make underwritten characters feel alive.

Like most movies involving Tom Cruise, Knight and Day boasts a bevy of top-notch performers and technicians doing great work. Don’t mistake that for delusions that this is anything more than a silly but extremely well-made popcorn movie. You won’t find probing insight into the human condition, but it’ll entertain you more than Grown Ups.

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