The sudden rush of 80s/90s-style action films to the cinemas of 2010 goes to show how different the ‘modern action film’ has become. People are right to criticise the aimless Bay/Bruckheimer affairs (Transformers), subpar sequels to old franchises (Terminator: Salvation, Predators) and, yes, even the gratuities of your sacred comic-book flick (Iron Man II, Wanted, huge parts of Dark Knight Returns). Violence in these films is more often than not a progression from spectacle to spectacle, wherein characters are little more than running, firing props, tediously filling the film’s explosion quotas until the audience checks their collective phone.
But there’s a new (old) breed of film filling seats this year, from Kick-Ass to The A-Team, with The Expendables and The Other Guys on their way, which would appear to take a more old-fashioned, technical approach to the material of gunshots and flipped cars. Some take their cues from the recent crop of action comedies (Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz), playing on self-reference and borderline absurdity. Others draw from the hyper-serious achievements of The Bourne Trilogy and its ilk, others still from the kitschy originals (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon etc). What’s important is that a balance is struck between characterisation, spectacle and strategy. These are ‘bullet films’, as opposed to the ‘bomb films’ of this decade which, well, often bomb.
One such ‘bullet film’ is, surprisingly, Knight and Day, starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. This film is probably recognisable to you (a seasoned, cynical person) as a genetic twin of this year’s Killers, wherein Ashton Kutcher plays action star to a befuddled Katherine Heigl. But Knight and Day is more than a forty-something’s retread of Killers. The plot is fuelled by a capable action narrative, and the romance is cleverly weaved into the developing story. June Havens (a sultry Diaz) is swept into the world of spy-gone-rogue Roy Miller (a twitchy/charming Cruise), who’s been charged with protecting a teenage inventor (Paul Dano!) and his perpetual energy source the corrupt Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard).
This straightforward setup allows for a progression of action set-pieces which, though as tongue-in-cheek as anything by Edgar Wright, are grounded by the characters involved. Cruise plays his uber-spy role through a wry sheen of almost-madness, while Diaz manages to believably portray her character’s transition from unlucky klutz to lucky shot to able heroine. The film is lifted, too, by their evident chemistry throughout, a more classically layered (some might say formulaic) treatment than we’ve become accustomed to.
The action itself is clear and logically presented, from airplane brawls to straightforward car chase shootouts – though there is little there in the way of innovation, these scenes are always played with an eye to the characters, and solid execution. The script shifts back and forth from witty banter to wittier action business without skipping a beat. Knight and Day is, despite one’s cynicism towards this kind of thing, a funny film. The comedy is not forced, as you might expect, through forced cameos or excessive action homage (though there is action homage to be had). Aside from Paul Dano’s feckless Feck, a brief interlude with ex-boyfriend Rodney (Marc Blucas) and a bittersweet exchange with an old couple named Knight, the bulk of the film’s comedic output rests on Diaz and Cruise. And by playing it straight, Sarsgaard and co provide not only a solid narrative foundation to the heroes’ unforced jokes, but provide a sinister, Bourne-esque counterpoint to the absurdities of a Mission Impossible Tom Cruise.
So, despite its lukewarm reception by critics, I hold that Knight and Day more than holds its own, especially if you consider its place in the new wave of bullet films hitting our screens. This is neither an action with comedic elements, nor a comedy with action sequences. It’s a film that remembers, along with its peers, that comedy and action are coextensive – there’s something violent about comedy, and there’s something funny about action. When neither are forced, the result is an entertaining film.