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Knockoff at the door
J.J. Abrams, consider yourself flattered

Knight and Day

Rated:PG-13
Studio:20th Century Fox
Director:James Mangold
Cast:Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Maggie Grace
Release Date:2010
Genre:Film
Our Rating:

If you’ve ever heard a humorless man try to tell a joke, then you know everything you need to about James Mangold’s straining, flat-in-all-directions foray into action-comedy, Knight and Day. The director of such laugh riots as Girl, Interrupted, Walk the Line and Cop Land, with the assistance of first-time screenwriter Patrick O’Neill, attempts his best Abrams-Orci-Kurzman imitation with confounding results. That triumvirate first discovered its magic formula of whiz-bang action supplemented by organic emotion and easy humor on Alias and most recently perfected it with the Star Trek reboot. The duo of Mangold-O’Neill, as much as they obviously want that crowd-pleasing power, just can’t manage it.

The problems start with Knight and Day’s foundation; it’s built from a script that has nothing fresh to add to the genre and a cast – Tom Cruise as Roy Miller, a rogue spy and general man of action, and Cameron Diaz as June Havens, the innocent girl along for the ride – that employs every ounce of its considerable charm in an ultimately Sisyphean effort.

Knight and Day starts with an airport meet-cute between Roy and June, who are being monitored by the CIA for reasons unknown. They board a plane that was supposed to be full and is now mostly empty. June goes to the bathroom and comes out to see everyone else but Roy is dead, including the pilots. Roy lands them in a corn field, drugs June and the plane blows up. She awakens to find it wasn’t a dream, and she’s suddenly in great danger.

It’s a setup that should be practically giddy with possibilities; the kind of pitch that I imagine would only take seconds for studio execs to register before reaching for the talent Rolodex. And the story is an engaging one, if only at the surface level: there’s some kind of battery phlebotinum that could be a source of alternative energy, and Roy is sworn to protect the geeky boy who invented it, thus planting Roy and June in any number of exotic locales for some romance and action.

The most obvious giveaway that Mangold is out of his element is the atrocious score, a cheesy French-tourist waltz that’s neither sexy nor adventurous. (The composer to blame is Bourne vet John Powell, surprisingly.) Throw in a toothless villain phoned in by Peter Sarsgaard and a doofy, inconsequential supporting character (Marc Blucas) and you have the makings of an action vehicle too light to take flight.

That leaves the heavy lifting squarely on the shoulders – or rather, the perfect teeth – of Cruise and Diaz, who have carried much lesser movies but seem too weary to put much effort forth here. Their chemistry is indecisive: Are they pals or polar opposites? Is theirs a connection between protector and protected or a dynamic of spunky equality? The film explores all of those options but commits to none, to the point where June actually has to ask at a pivotal romantic moment if he’s even that into her. Roy responds by walking calmly through a hail of gunfire to kiss her, and it says a lot that at the moment of peak action, the movie has abandoned any thought of putting them in danger; even they know those bullets are going to miss. If they don’t care then we shouldn’t either, Mangold suggests with his blasé direction. Mission accomplished.

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