"Knight and Day" takes Hollywood's love-on-the-run formula, then adds a knowing wink and some well-executed explosions.
There's a lot of craft in the making of "Knight and Day," but not a lot of enthusiasm.
The film's prospectus is blandly enticing: Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz as a dashing secret agent and the plucky lass he pulls into a crucial mission. Romance on the run, amid breathless escapes, quips, tourism-friendly locations and frequent shootouts. It's a safe, something-for- everyone rehash of elements familiar from "Killers," "Date Night" and "The Bounty Hunter." Falling in love while dodging baddies with guns a-blazin' is the flavor of the month. And the month before, and the month before that.
What gives the new film an edge is a hefty budget and a playful bit of ambiguity at the center of things. Cruise plays Roy Miller, a rogue agent on the run from the FBI. They warn his smitten hostage that he's completely off his rocker, and his outlandish outbursts make the charge plausible. Diaz's June Evans has to decide whether to trust the authorities or her intuition. Each time she challenges him, he diverts but never completely allays June's suspicion, leaving her attracted but confused. Her rocky relationship with Roy echoes the on-again, off-again bond between moviegoers and the volatile Cruise.
The film features top-notch production values and Scooby-Doo-level plotting and characterization. Skittering from Wichita (where things start with a bang-up jumbo jet crash) to Boston, Austria, the Azores and Spain (where a stampede of bulls complicates a car and motorcycle chase), Roy and June bend all laws of logic, gravity and physics to secure the scraggly young inventor (Paul Dano) whose revolutionary gizmo triggered all the running and shooting.
Unfortunately, the promise of juicy self-parody quickly evaporates. Cruise is cramped and robotized, too guarded to clown. He seems more interested in protecting his charismatic image than in lampooning his gonzo reputation. If the film stuck with the is-he-nuts theme, shrewdly manipulating our expectations, this could have been more than a generic mixture of action flick and romantic comedy.
As it stands, the balance of the film tips much more to Cruise's strength (over-the-top action) than to Diaz's (bubbly romance). It's conceived as a sequence of flashy set pieces rather than a coherently worked-out story and, as surely as day follows night, "Knight and Day" gets increasingly tiresome.
The film wrings what laughs it can from Roy's infinitely patient, polite, detailed instructions to June. He's nothing like the usual action film man of few words. He talks Diaz through every emergency like a stress-reduction therapist. Cruise stays Freon-cool, complimenting her dress while clinging to the hood of a speeding car. Diaz does what Hollywood expects of a blonde in danger. Hand her an Uzi and she panics, shrieks and dances in a circle, ventilating the scenery. Girls, right?
Their emotional tango draws them closer as the film proceeds, but there's little sense of spark between the stars. The sexual heat that flowed off Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is nowhere to be seen here. Cruise and Diaz share one indifferent smooch. They come off less like potential lovers than amiable traveling companions.
Director James Mangold ("Walk the Line," "3:10 to Yuma"), an intelligent and versatile filmmaker, gives the film some memorable moments. To get the characters halfway around the world in a hurry, he employs a series of quick-cut blackouts that serve as shorthand. Too bad Hollywood is more comfortable assigning him to blow stuff up than to craft sophisticated stories or create fresh, memorable characters.