A few years back, a lot of people were turned off by the increasingly bizarre antics of Tom Cruise. The couch jumping, anti-psychiatry rants and the Matt Lauer slap all gave -- in such a short time span -- the appearance that one of America's biggest movie stars was, in fact, an egomaniacal nutcase.
He's always been more of a movie star than an actor, and that's not really a slight. The point is, as deeply weird as Tom Cruise might be in real life, I still try to separate the person from the job. John Wayne was a draft dodging, pro-war John Bircher. I don't let that stop me from watching The Searchers.
With Knight and Day, I wasn't really expecting much. The trailer looked like generic fun, but the presence of James Mangold (Copland) in the director's chair was the real indication that there might be something worth seeing here.
The script went through so many hands that the Writers Guild gave sole credit to the least famous one, Patrick O'Neill (Dead Last), though heavyweights such as Scott Frank (Minority Report) and Laeta Kolagridis (Shutter Island) took passes at it.
And it shows. Knight and Day is an episodic affair, light as a feather with flashes of quality, that's basically as inconsequential as the MacGuffin that drives the film. But within its utterly unoriginal confines, Cruise and Diaz manage to entertain, while Mangold unleashes a decent action/comedy picture on us. Still, much of the fun to be had in Knight and Day, as with many of this summer's releases, seems to hinge on lowered expectations.
June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is about to take a return flight from Wichita back home to Boston when she bumps into Roy Miller, a seemingly innocuous fellow traveler. After a moment of doubt, when it appears her flight is overbooked, June gets cleared to board after all, only to find the plane mostly empty, except for Miller and a few shifty looking guys.
Thinking nothing of it, Havens and Miller quickly strike up a rapport, and while Havens takes a powder break in the bathroom, Miller incapacitates and kills everyone else on the plane. Turns out, they were all assassins tasked with taking Miller out.
At first, June seems to take this pretty well, but soon she finds herself stuck with Miller on a twisting, turning, cloak-and-dagger adventure, as Miller -- a seemingly rouge intelligence operative -- dodges the Feds and international arms dealers in an effort to reclaim a device that could change the balance of world power forever.
Yeah, I would have forgotten what it was about already, too, but the film has a giddy energy and some memorable (if often brought to life by lackluster CG) action sequences, which combined with the chemistry of the two leads, transforms Knight and Day into what is best described as a Renny Harlin-esque guilty pleasure.
Mangold stages his action sequences in a fairly grand scope -- though nothing compared to The A-Team -- and, more importantly, blocks everything with considered comprehension. His spatial sense goes a long way to making the more ridiculous sequences not only visually cognizant but also to hitting the right beats, be they comedic or suspenseful.
Not that there is a whole lot of suspense here. The script is too generic for that, though the set pieces while sometimes derivative -- like the bullet ballet fights that recall Cruise's Mission Impossible II director, John Woo -- build on each other well. Likewise the Bond/Hunt/Bourne-inspired brushes with death whose principal thrills are derived from how technically proficient they are, as opposed to any real sense of danger.
I think we've all seen Cruise dodge flying cars, while clinging to a careening, high-speed vehicle in an underground tunnel somewhere before.
You know he'll make it. Toss a few real cars at him, instead of the CG variety, and maybe then my spine will tingle.
But still, it works as an action movie and there are some giggle-worthy moments here that are mostly intentional. The chemistry between Cruise and Diaz goes a long way to making this highly ersatz confection a little sweeter than it would otherwise be.
It helps that Diaz doesn't play the dumb blonde and turns out, from shaky beginnings, to be a capable heroine. She's got that girlish quality even when she's capping bad guys riding backwards on a speeding motorcycle and still possesses the comedic timing that put her (and her hair gel) on the cultural map with There's Something About Mary.
Cruise mugs it up a lot, but it's that mugging that got him where he is today. His performance here is Cruise being a comic book version of his actual self but that works, too.
Knight and Day was one of three action projects he was circling, and he picked this apparently because he thought it was the least like his Ethan Hunt character from Mission Impossible. Fact is, you've seen him doing much of this before, just less lightheartedly. All things considered, I'm glad he's changing things up and doing the Les Grossman movie next. Soon, watching him in an action flick will be as silly as Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard.
Knight and Day is average. That's in its DNA. It passed through too many hands to not get watered down. But Cruise and Diaz, under Mangold's adept direction (along with Peter Sarsgaard as a ruthless FBI man) were swinging for the fences here, and sometimes that extra effort is enough to earn some grudging goodwill.
And it wasn't Grown Ups.
The biggest problem with Grown Ups (aside from its general awfulness) is that everyone involved -- with the exception of Chris Rock -- are stand-up comedians and Saturday Night Live alumni that I've never liked.
Kevin James, David Spade, Adam Sandler, Colin Quinn and Rob Schneider were perhaps funny people to know in life, but whose infantile, one-note acts never inspired anything but contempt in me.
All of which preempts Grown Ups from any real critical objectivity on my part. I've just been so unimpressed by most of these people for so long.
Produced under the auspices of Adam Sandler's Happy Madison house, I already know to expect everyone of Sandler's friends -- talented or not -- to pop up somewhere. Grown Ups is an opportunity for Sandler (with co-conspirator Fred Wolf) to write a reason to employ them.
But, there is an audience for this. That audience made two Deuce Bigalow movies happen. That audience made The King of Queens into some kind of 21st Century Honeymooners. That audience, in the mid-1990s, legitimatized Sandler's musical comedy style, while propelling him to be the same kind of Hollywood cash cow status he satirizes so well in Judd Apatow's plodding, but far funnier, Funny People.
That audience keeps SNL on life support and gives material aid and comfort to the lowest common denominator of comedy; no matter what guys like me say.
I don't understand that audience. They bellow at shallow jokes, love a good kick to the balls and think pissing-in-the-pool gags are transgressive. Repetition is a mark of quality where familiarity is comfort, and substance is the enemy.
I'm a huge fan of testicular trauma, scatology and warm (or cold) hearted cruelty, but I need it to be inspired and witty -- the last two words I would associate with Grown Ups.
Almost every joke, sequence and plot point (such as they are) felt like a fat syringe in my brainstem, sucking every last hope for the fate of comedy from my soul, as my audience mates cackled at the banality.
I felt like Malcolm MacDowell, eye-lids pried open, straight-jacketed to the seat, crying over the desecration of his lovely, lovely Ludwig Van.
In that sense, Grown Ups is worse than Cop Out if only because Cop Out seemed to fail with the audience as well as at the box office. Grown Ups will do neither.
Grown Ups is designed for the fans of Sandler, Spade, James, (a neutered) Rock and the insidious Schneider, and no matter what I think of them or the film, they are stars who are endearing to their fans. I was just never one of them -- again, with the exception of Rock, who is reduced to Mr. Mom here.
From Billy Madison to Little Nicky to The Waterboy, it's the audiences that make these films possible. Since critics, seemingly for time immemorial, have ladled nothing but scorn on much of the collective cinematic output of these people to no avail, I figure maybe it's time to criticize the audience instead.
I could complain that the threadbare plot (old school pals come together for the funeral of their esteemed basketball coach) is nothing more than an excuse to get these guys together to shoot unfunny insults at each other. This comes especially as Schneider tongue wrestles his octogenarian wife (Joyce Van Patten), James milks to death the old "funny fatty slips and falls," as his wife (Maria Bello) breast feeds their 4-year-old son, all the while Spade rapes my eyes with his flabby bare ass, but what's the point?
The movie isn't the problem. It needs an audience to exist. It needs people that demand less for it to thrive.
Do you not care about the lack of anything really happening in a film (I guess there was a nod to story with a clichéd basketball re-match ripped from a Seinfeld episode)? Are crude pratfalls, a couple of pie-in-the-face gags -- one, of course, being a cow pie -- and saccharine platitudes about friendship and fairness all you really need for Grown Ups to feel like money well spent? Is Rob Schneider being shot in the foot with a bow-and-arrow the Everest of hilarity for you? I have to admit, I rather enjoyed that. I can at least pretend he actually hurt himself.
If you answered yes to any or all those questions, then I guess you'll love Grown Ups. And we will never form a meaningful bond.
But if I can beg you to accept at least one piece of advice that you might take, it would be this: If you are going to see it, wait for the DVD. Please? Because if you keep doing that then maybe, someday soon, films like Grown Ups will skip the theater altogether, and I won't have to tell you about how much I hate them anymore.
Then, we can all be happy.
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