Tuesday, 10 August 2010

'Knight and Day' review: Light-hearted summer fun...

'Knight and Day', starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz and directed by James Mangold ('Walk the Line'), is the latest movie in what has almost become a sub-genre of action romantic-comedies. Films like this year's Jennifer Aniston vehicle 'The Bounty Hunter' and 'Date Night' starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, have found varying degrees of success by blending gentle humour with low-key action. But it is probably Doug Liman's 2005 film 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' that 'Knight and Day' resembles most closely: the leads of both having genuine star power and sex appeal, whilst the action is rather more violent, high-octane and central to proceedings.

There is something old fashioned about 'Knight and Day'. Mangold avoids the fast-cutting, music video style of direction which now the norm in action films. Instead we are allowed to see clearly what is going on at all times, making the actions scenes (especially the car chases) more exciting then they otherwise would be. The sound design is equally good with the dialogue always clearly audible. When Tom Cruise's rogue spy, Roy Miller, talks to the terrified fish-out-of-water June Havens (Cameron Diaz) whilst hanging onto the bonnet of her car, he is improbably easy to hear through the car windshield and over the gunfire and the traffic. This is stark opposition to the hyper-realist sound mixes used in films like 'Miami Vice' - and I for one welcome it.

It is also old fashioned in its use of stunt work and location shooting, with Tom Cruise clearly doing a lot of the motorcycle and sports car driving himself, over the streets of Austria, Spain and the US. There is undoubtedly a lot of CGI going on (clearly in the case of the plane crash and probably in the case of the Pamplona bull running sequence), but that doesn't detract from the immerse nature of many of the action set-pieces. Many of them are only a few notches more realistic than those in the recent 'A-Team' movie and they are a lot of fun. Mangold is also pretty brave in that he allows many bits of action business to occur off-camera (for instance when Diaz is unconscious). It is almost as if the director is admitting that it is immaterial how our heroes escape certain situations: we know that they will emerge victorious and it is as if we are simply being told to enjoy the ride.

There is also a good deal of chemistry between the two stars, re-united here after playing opposite one another in Cameron Crowe's 'Vanilla Sky' back in 2001. Cruise is good value, knowingly playing up to his current off-screen persona as slightly mentally imbalanced in a film that, for at least some of its running time, requires you to question whether he is a who he says he is, or, in fact, a dangerous fantasist. Diaz is fidgety, hyper-active and irritating, as ever, but she is not without a certain charm and seems to shine especially bright opposite Cruise. It is to the duo's credit that the film manages to survive some very cringe-worthy and cliché dialogue (notably when talking about their aspirations) down to the goodwill the pair engender.

There are also some decent supporting actors here, such as Peter Sarsgaard (last seen seducing Carey Mulligan in 'An Education'), who plays the agent assigned to apprehend the duo by any means necessary, and Paul Dano ('There Will be Blood', 'Little Miss Sunshine'), whose nervous, young scientist is probably the comic highlight (though that is mainly due to his ridiculous facial hair).

However, it isn't a perfect film by any stretch. John Powell's score is terrible, seemingly shouting "hey! It's a comedy!" during the fight scenes and announcing "hey! We're in Spain!" during the Pamplona action. A good score supports the on-screen action, whereas this one often works directly against it. There is also a nasty, generic Spanish-speaking villain, as has become recent Hollywood custom (notably in this summer's 'A-Team' and 'The Expendables'). It is also not a very humanistic movie, with Cruise murdering FBI agents everywhere he goes (which is apparently OK).

Much of the comedy falls flat, but in the end it is pretty good-natured, light-hearted action-adventure that wins the day. 'Knight and Day' is similar to 'A-Team', in that it is a loony action movie which doesn't take itself at all seriously. But 'Knight and Day' is much better made than that, has better visual effects and the action is directed far more coherently. It also has less plot exposition than any film this summer, which is also quite refreshing. It is no masterpiece and it isn't advancing the art of film making in any way - quite the reverse, 'Knight and Day' seems to look backwards to (dare I say it) a simpler time. But that is perhaps its single greatest feature. Perhaps because of this, it is also the best of the recent action rom-coms by some distance.

'Knight and Day' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is out now across the UK.

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