Unhappily matched fugitives who crack wise while dodging mortal danger has been a cinematic staple at least since The 39 Steps in 1935, and it perhaps had its finest hour when Cary Grant led Audrey Hepburn a merry and mischievous dance through Stanley Donen's Charade (1963). Film-makers have been trying to replicate this type of caper-comedy-romance for years, and flubbing it. This year we've already had Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl mugging through the awful Killers, and now, handling a much larger budget, James Mangold tries his luck with Knight and Day. How I wish I could continue without a sigh.
Mangold has had an intermittently interesting career, starting with his debut feature, Heavy, and encompassing a decent police thriller ( CopLand) and a creditable remake of a Western ( 3:10 to Yuma). So he knows how to do drama. The comedy and the romance, however, are much trickier propositions, and he's hindered rather than helped by the return of Tom Cruise to action-hero mode for the first time since Mission: Impossible 3 in 2006. Cruise plays Roy Miller, a rogue CIA agent who meets-cute with June Havens (Cameron Diaz) on a flight out of Wichita airport. She's on her way home for her sister's wedding, little suspecting the trouble ahead. Having single-handedly killed a bunch of enemies plus the two pilots, Roy crashlands the plane in the middle of a cornfield and then takes ditzy June hostage as they go on the run.
It transpires that Roy has hold of a battery gizmo, which, despite its miniature size, can power a whole city without recharging. (Hasn't Apple already invented one of these?) It's the invention of a pale-faced geek played by Paul Dano, who has been a shadow of his former self since There Will Be Blood. The "bad guys" who want it are led by a Spanish arms dealer (Jordi Mollà), while the "worse guys" are goons led by a CIA bad apple, played with almost a yawn in his voice by Peter Sarsgaard.
When Robert Donat handcuffed Madeleine Carroll to him to make sure she didn't stray from his side in The 39 Steps, it was perverse and kinky – a Hitchcockian play on the erotic thrill of dominance. It's a sign of the times that Roy binds his reluctant partner to him by knocking her out cold with drugs at various stages in the story. This allows the film to switch arbitrarily from one location to another – a South Pacific island, a trans-Alpine express, a stopover in Salzburg – without ever convincing us there's a reason for any of them. Late in the film, the couple are being chased down a street in Seville, when from the opposite direction comes a stampede of bulls. At this point I expected at least a good gag about bulls (Will they pursue Roy and June through a china shop?) but no, it's just there as a dose of tourist exotica to divert the popcorn-munchers. Heaven forbid they were actually given something to think about...
Patrick O'Neill's script can't keep up with the plot's switchback moves. He simply hasn't the wit for lines that, say, a Cary Grant might use to cajole a woman (and an audience) into sticking with him for the ride. And even if he had the lines, would we believe them coming out of Tom Cruise's mouth? Cruise seems to think that just flashing his megawatt smile will make a woman melt, but it looks more like smarm than charm, and the fact that he feels it necessary to drug the lady suggests a profound distrust of the female sex.
His character is meant to be a loose cannon – you know, like, "craaay-zee" – but all you get from Cruise is a strutting, self-absorbed projection of control. Perhaps he should have jumped up and down on a sofa or something, because Roy doesn't cut it either as a wild card or man of mystery. Diaz is sweetly game, and matches Cruise for toothiness; she also knows the score after going through a kidnap comedy years ago in A Life Less Ordinary. Hers is a shoddily written part, all the same: she's supposed to be a great mechanic, yet as soon as she gets a machine- gun in her hands she sprays bullets around in a shrieking, girly style that says, "D'oh – women!"
And what about that title? "Knight" turns out to be the surname of Roy's parents – who think he's dead, by the way, but let's not get into that. So how about "Day"? Could that be June's surname, thus making them an "aptly named" pair? No, because she's June Havens, as we already know. I puzzled over this for a while, thinking I'd missed something, but in the end it comes down to feebleness of imagination. "Day" is there only because the film-makers couldn't think of anything else that went with "Knight". A good one might have been "Knight's Move", as in chess, which would indicate the hero's ability to escape from closed positions. Or "Knight Flight", given how often he uses airlines. But no, it's Knight and Day.
Maybe it doesn't deserve a better title. Though aimed at an older demographic, and a notionally higher IQ, it is in the same galumphing manner as last week's The A-Team, a loud, frenetic and poorly written action movie that could have tried harder to entertain us, or at least tried not to insult our intelligence so flagrantly. At the moment, even that modest ambition looks like the Hollywood blockbuster's mission impossible.