Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tom Cruise’s Film Career: Nice Try But No Cigar

Knight and Day, Tom Cruise’s latest movie, which opens today, is a reminder, once again, of how he simply can’t hold up his end of the bargain when it comes to creating a charismatic, gripping character on screen. Up against a talented actress like Cameron Diaz he is particularly lost. Cruise, in fact, is the Energizer Bunny of Hollywood. You admire his efforts to act, but it becomes quickly apparent he’s really not getting anywhere acting.

His work is not the flop sweat of a generally bad actor like Jude Law (Closer, Sleuth), where you can feel his failure on screen. It’s more a case of someone who tries gamely to turn in a good performance but only occasionally succeeds in doing so. His callow, unformed persona sometimes suits his roles (Risky Business, Jerry Maguire, Mission: Impossible), which is when he rises to the occasion, but usually it only serves to showcase his limitations as an actor (The Last Samurai, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Far and Away, Rain Man, The Color of Money). Except for the aforementioned good roles, Cruise also mostly chooses bad films to star in. Whether playing a harried father (War of the Worlds), a futuristic cop on the run (Minority Report), a troubled bloodsucker (Interview with the Vampire) or a disabled Vietnam War vet (Born on the Fourth of the July), he rarely makes any lasting impression. His overly self effacing manner negates any personality he could bring to his part, rendering him a blank slate. This may explain why so few critics nail Cruise for his non-acting. They obviously read into his performances what they want them to be, not what they actually are. (Meanwhile a talented, albeit uneven actor, like Keanu Reeves (Speed, Devil’s Advocate) routinely gets grief for all his supposed ‘bad’ performances, no matter what he does. Go figure!)

As Knight and Day's Roy Miller, an undercover Federal secret agent, who is suspected of going rogue, Cruise, regrettably, is on screen a lot, as Miller blows away any number of his fellow agents, cracks wise and, not incidentally, crosses paths with Diaz’s June Havens, a car restorer who is on her way home to her sister’s wedding. She gets sidetracked when Miller plants a battery, which offers a solution to mankind’s dependence on oil, in her luggage. Suddenly June’s smack in the middle of shootouts, bad guys and intrigue, while slowly falling for Roy, the mysterious man who empowers her and lets her feel that she’s capable of anything.

Story wise, Knight and Day isn’t much of a film. Patrick O’Neill’s perfunctory screenplay echoes everything from Romancing the Stone to the Indiana Jones movies to Out of Sight, but if someone other than Cruise - say Robert Downey Jr. or George Clooney - had essayed the part of Roy, the movie might have displayed at least a frisson of sexiness or wit. But Cruise can’t ‘do suave’ to save his life and he has zero chemistry with Diaz, who also outdid him in an earlier mediocre film, Vanilla Sky. It would have helped, too, if a real action director were behind the camera. Knight and Day’s James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line) is one heavy-handed filmmaker who’s not at all comfortable staging car chases, which in any case -- except for a scene involving vehicles meeting bulls in Seville, Spain -- are nothing we haven’t seen before.

Because Cruise simply doesn’t register at all in Knight and Day, and just seems to be going through the motions as the possibly deranged, certainly cocky Miller, I was forced to spend much more of the film's time gazing at and analyzing Diaz and her performance. (A tough job, I know, but somebody has to do it.) She’s actually one of the few American actresses I can think of, who is equally adept at playing comedy (There’s Something About Mary, Charlie’s Angels, The Sweetest Thing) as she is drama (Vanilla Sky, Gangs of New York, In Her Shoes) and anything that doesn’t fit neatly into any genre (Being John Malkovich). And the camera, of course, just loves her. She’s usually consistently good in her roles even if many of her films, such as Gangs of New York, Charlie’s Angels and her film debut The Mask aren’t any good at all. Her underrated performance as a troubled party girl in In Her Shoes, where she held her own opposite the stellar Toni Collette, is a prime example of her talent.

In Knight and Day, she goes from being a sweet naïf, to scared passenger on Cruise/Miller’s wild ride, to pissed-off victim, to finally a confident and determined woman who decides to take matters into her own hands. Once she is free and clear of the guy, she even decides of her own accord that she’s interested in hooking up with him anyway. (I’m not ruining anything here; this has nothing to do with the plot.) She even shines in a subtle (for this film anyway) sequence where, she blurts out uncomfortable, indiscreet truths while under the influence of truth serum. None of this should suggest that June Havens is anything more than a thinly sketched protagonist, only that Diaz does her level best, and often succeeds, in breathing life into a lifeless role. The rest of the cast, including Viola Davis (Doubt) and Peter Sarsgard (An Education), don’t manage to light sparks under their characters, except for Paul Dano. He burns his part to the ground, giving an overwrought performance as a scientific genius/geek, at the centre of the story, that’s as awful as his performance as the preacher in the execrable There Will Be Blood.

And of course, there’s Cruise. It always comes back to Cruise and his baffling film career. Whereas Brad Pitt, who used to overact horrendously in films like Twelve Monkeys and Sleepers, has turned into a fine actor, particularly in David Fincher’s masterpiece The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Cruise is generally not much improved since his early career, almost thirty years ago. Then, as the star of the 1981 military drama Taps, he had the movie stolen out from under him by an unknown actor, by the name of Sean Penn, making his film debut. I don’t think Cruise, unlike Penn, will ever win an Oscar, though he supposedly, if you believe the ‘buzz’, came close to winning one in 1990 for Born on the Fourth of the July. Fortunately the Academy gave the award to the much more deserving Daniel Day- Lewis, who was far more believable and compelling as a disabled man in My Left Foot.

I’d suggest that the lesser evil might be relegating Cruise to smaller, character roles but, oddly enough, when he’s had parts like that (the self-help guru in Magnolia, the dictatorial producer, Les Grossman, in Tropic Thunder), he’s gone to the other extreme, chewing the screen ferociously and rendering his roles as caricatures. The solution would be for him to go behind the camera, a la Ron Howard (Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon), and perhaps displaying some talent there, but he doesn’t seem interested in going that route. Now that he’s approaching fifty, he might start to get less work in youth-obsessed Hollywood – we can only hope – but I don’t think we can count on that. That means, for the foreseeable future, he’s one actor you can count on to damage pretty much any film he’s in. When that movie is one like Knight and Day, which has little going for it in the first place, the movie is more or less DOA, despite Diaz’s game and welcome attempt to resuscitate it.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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