“Knight and Day” plants itself atop two nifty comedic premises: 1. What if we had a James Bond-style yarn from the Bond girl’s point of view; and 2. Tom Cruise is batcrap insane. Both ideas pull us in nicely, and for a good while, the movie floats along well enough as a clever action-comedy. But then it keeps floating, and floating, and floating, long after the plot’s run out of steam, long after everyone involved runs out of interest, long after the whole damn thing stops being an action-comedy, leaving us with a string of disconnected stunt scenes and limp story filler.
Cameron Diaz stars as June Havens, a sexy-sweet classic car enthusiast who owns her own detailing shop. (“Car-lovin’ tomboy hottie” is one of those screenplay concoctions that’s evolved into limp cliché – which is, of course, not to say women can’t/don’t like “man stuff,” but that sometimes filmmakers just don’t know how to write for female characters, so they insist on mediocre shorthand.) On her way home to her sister’s wedding (the sister’s named April; no word on if there’s a May), she stumbles across Roy Miller (Cruise), an amped-up killer smile who’s either a last-of-the-good-guys rogue secret agent or a demented madman in cahoots with an international arms dealer supervillain.
Overlooking the fact that Cruise’s charisma makes it irrelevant which side he’s on (it’s obvious he’s not a “Collateral”-level baddie here, so with this much energy and good humor, we’re going to root for him anyway), “Knight and Day” plays Roy’s truth fairly close to the vest. June is approached by federal agents who tell him Roy’s up to no good, but, a ha, Roy told her they’d say that and predicted their “coded” language/threats. He also seems to be the only person interested in keeping her alive through all the plane crashes and highway chases and shoot outs, so maybe he’s a hero after all.
The joke here is that Roy is played by Cruise, who is essentially playing himself. Roy is boisterous and disarming and would very likely jump on a couch if one was nearby. For years – even before “the Oprah incident” – Cruise was eager to poke fun of his public image, but with Roy Miller, the star welcomes full-on self-parody, and he’s obviously having a ball doing it. The script leaves Roy in a verbal frenzy, a chattering that increases vigor once Cruise starts injecting the lines with his own very Cruise-ness. It’s as if Ben Stiller’s Cruise impersonation, all giant laughs and manic grins, finally infested Cruise himself.
So when we’re asking “is Roy the hero, or is he crazy?”, we’re really saying to ourselves, “holy crap, Tom Cruise is still crazy, that’s hilarious!” Or at least some variation thereof, give or take a “hilarious.” The self-reference carries the picture through for a good chunk of running time; even after the plot fizzles and the action overload wears thin, Cruise remains highly enjoyable, a winky movie star performance that’s better than the movie that traps it.
And oh, the plot does fizzle, the result of some twelve (!) writers (the film was passed off from director to director, writer to writer, creating a pile of new drafts; oddly, only first-timer Patrick O’Neill, who provided the original script, would receive credit) shaping the story’s shapelessness. We get multiple villains but no impactful threat, multiple action set pieces but no decent plot to connect them, multiple set-ups but no pay-offs, multiple stabs at character development but nothing that ultimately matters. (Poor Marc Blucas, whose nice guy ex-boyfriend character clearly started out with purpose, but dozens of drafts later ends up as a limp, forgettable Baxter who appears in just three scenes.)
The screenplay starts off with a clear, singular purpose, though: the aforementioned Bond Girl’s point of view. June – and the audience – joins Roy’s adventure already in progress and is forced to spend the bulk of the picture playing catch-up. The hero already has his objective; she’s just along for the ride. (Sort of. The script fails to explain why June’s presence is so important to both Roy and the feds on his tail, eventually settling on “if she’s not there, there’s no movie” as the lone valid excuse.)
Motivation aside, this is a fascinating spin on an old genre, especially when the film allows itself to omit vital sections of the plot. There’s a devilish humor in the way June will fade in and out of the story – quite literally, in fact, as she slowly, intermittently wakes up after being drugged, only to see glimpses of Roy lugging her through all those Jason Bourne moments of grand adventure.
But through all of this, June is an underwritten and fairly generic character (Diaz, in a breezily fun performance, adds some appeal, but it’s an uphill battle), and she’s hardly enough to lighten the increasingly cluttered and dull plot. When she takes over as a heroine of her own making, the script fizzles, adding mystery where we don’t really need any and eventually just allowing her to weakly direct us back into the thick of the action. She’s not a person, she’s a plot point traffic cop.
Eventually, the screenplay gives up. The last ten minutes (maybe twenty? fifty? ninety? the whole thing runs 109 minutes – which works out to about 100 minutes of actual movie, plus credits – yet feels at least twice as long) swap the point of view to Roy’s, which I’m sure was originally intended as a clever switcheroo but eventually just comes off as the clumsy sign of somebody not paying attention.
Somewhere before this, the plot gives up, too, figuring there’s no way to glue together all the diverse locations and stunts. Here, “Knight and Day” looks like the notes of a production meeting where the producers shouted out stuff they’d like to see. “Let’s have Tom and Cameron ride on a motorcycle in the middle of the Running of the Bulls!” “Let’s have a fight in the kitchen of a train that’s zipping through the Alps!” “Let’s have a drone plane chase them through an island jungle!” “Let’s have a rooftop chase in one of those European cities you always see in spy movies!” It’s a Mad Libs version of a summer popcorn flick.
Director James Mangold (an unlikely but welcome choice for the material) does give these scenes a visual flair, preferring longer takes and shots that highlight Cruise’s own stuntwork. It doesn’t help the story add up to much, but it does help keep things energetic for a while. And while many shots are impaired with on-the-cheap CGI enhancement, there’s enough oomph to the stars’ own stunts to please.
And yet “Knight and Day” ends up chasing itself around in circles, going nowhere, doing nothing, hoping to coast on charm and goodwill. Even its name means nothing, really; one assumes a producer pulled it out of a drawer full of generic titles. You know the drawer. It’s right next to the file cabinet of random action ideas, to the left of the trash can where the toss the leftover bits from all the half-used comic premises they don’t finish.