Knight and Day
James Mangold has an uncanny knack for letting movie stars be themselves. Witness: Sylvester Stallone as a competent dullard (Cop Land), Angelina Jolie as a hot mess (Girl, Interrupted), and Joaquin Phoenix as an entertainer who stumbles in front of an audience no matter how totally incomprehensible he is (Walk the Line). Mangold may work his most ingenious casting yet in Knight and Day with Tom Cruise, an actor who raised his star playing anxious, humorless, self-serious types. Remember the Cruise that tweaked out like an angel-dusted cocker spaniel on Oprah? Mangold hired that guy.
Cruise in full-on mental mode plays Roy Miller, some kind of top secret government black op special agent--or something. He's protecting--or stealing--a really, really, really neat battery (yes: a battery) called the zephyr, which was designed by a supergenius young man named Simon (Paul Dano). Roy, the zephyr, and Simon are trying to be recovered--or hunted--by FBI or CIA or WTF? agent Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard). For the sake of, well, this movie existing, Roy and June Havens (Cameron Diaz, who can do adorable, athletic, and funny in her sleep), a classic American car-restoring gearhead, meet cute at the Wichita airport before a flight they're taking to Boston, on which Roy juggles pretending (or maybe not) to flirt with June and fending off assassins (or law enforcers). What follows is a cat and mouse--or Nichols and May or Wayne and Garth--series of car chases/escapes/shootouts/fisticuffs/etc. around Boston, some off-the-grid island, Austria, and Spain. Got that? Don't worry: Clarity of plot isn't important.
What is is a series of romantic-comedy dynamics played out in Die Hard-preposterous action. In these moments--fortunately a wealth of the movie--Knight, like Doug Liman's Mr. and Mrs. Smith, balances absurd cheekiness with baroque mayhem. That Diaz and Cruise have very little chemistry rather enhances these scenes, as Knight is ostensibly the courtship of two strangers. Imagine if Nick and Nora Charles hated each other when they first met. Then add a hail of 10,000 bullets.
The problem is that the lame attempts at a story totally get in the way of Mangold's entertainingly orchestrated nonsense. Eventually, all ridiculous set pieces--airplane vs. cornfield, knife vs. chest, cars vs. bulls--have to arrive at something resembling a resolution, and the inevitably predictable, contrived, and anti-climatic denouement feels particularly deflating after such frenetic scenes of big things going boom. Pointlessly entertaining when everybody's locked and loaded; borderline insufferable when they're not.