Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (***1/2)

Directed by Doug Liman


When I initially saw the image of Tom Cruise running around in a metallic exoskeleton from the first production still of Edge of Tomorrow I was overcome with disappointment. Cruise has spent the better part of a decade trying to recover from an image fiasco in which his relationship with the Church of Scientology, and his manic defensiveness regarding that relationship, rubbed the American public the wrong way and he's become something closer to a joke than the actual talent that he is. Cruise is the greatest movie star of his era - better than Clooney, better than Pitt - but his obsession with fighting big monsters and aliens and famously doing a lot of his own stunts seems wearying. He was good in the last Mission Impossible film, but how much do people really wanna watch a man in his fifties fight the bad guys? An actor as much overwhelming talent as Cruise should be trying to win our hearts at this point with his attributes as a thespian, not as an action star. Even Will Smith is readying plans to make his son the heir to his action star fortune. So when I heard about Edge of Tomorrow I instinctively sighed and wondered if Cruise would ever be great again. But Edge of Tomorrow is different from Oblivian and Knight and Day and even his good performance in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It's a brilliant sci-fi action picture that knows the power of its stars, especially Cruise, producing the actor's single best performance in a decade.

When I call Cruise the greatest movie star of his era, I base that claim on his brilliant ability to play both toward and against audience expectations. His performance in Rain Man and Magnolia, his two best, capitalize against the basic trait of Cruise that makes him so polarizing: he seems so very aware of how much better his life is than yours. He feels arrogant and we've enjoyed watching him get knocked down a peg or two on several occasions, particularly in Jerry Maguire in which he plays a man who is the epitome of the cocky capitalist. Maguire finds his conscience and is penalized for it - again, we enjoy Cruise as a reclamation project. The fact that he can seem to embody something so unlikable makes him incredibly watchable. Clooney and Pitt mostly just play to what the audiences want from them - with Clooney, it's incredible cool; with Pitt, it's his beautiful detachment - Cruise is constantly subverting what audiences want, and he's constantly giving us characters that we didn't even know we wanted to see from him. It seemed like Cruise had lost sight of that in his Herculean efforts to convince the world that he's really a "good guy" and Collateral in 2004 was the last performance he'd had with any real balls. Edge of Tomorrow gives hope that the self-awareness that made him so special is still glimmering inside somewhere.

The film is based on a Japanese novel titled All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurakaza. It's plot structure is Inception-esque in its execution, deceptively simple despite its overreaching need to feel complicated. Edge of Tomorrow is both easy to understand, and it makes audiences feel smart when they understand it. The film takes places during a dark period in which an alien species called Mimics have come to Earth and have laid waste to large portions of several major European cities. The human race has built armies to combat them and have had occasional success, but the Mimics always seem to be one step ahead. Major William Cage (Cruise) is a spokesman for UDF (the United Defense Forces), a master of spin who appears on many a national news show to sell audiences on the war. His career in the American military has involved very little actual combat, preferring to be the one doing the talking than the fighting. When he meets the commander of the UDF, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), he's informed that he will be sent to fight on the front lines. Cage's sense of self-preservation checks in. At first he calmly explains that he's an officer not meant for combat. When that doesn't work, he tries blackmail, detailing his media connections and how easy it would be for him to make Brigham the fall guy for a deadly battle with overwhelming casualties. Neither strategy succeeds and he's sent to the barracks to be part of J Squad.

The UDF's greatest military asset against the Mimics has come in the form of an invention called the Jacket. The jacket is a weaponized exoskeleton made to fit a certain soldier and equip him with various firearms. Cage is strapped into one the morning before he's meant to be dropped on the beach for battle; he doesn't even know how to take the safety off. J Squad doesn't even make it to the beach before there's an explosion within their aircraft. The soldiers drop in a panic, landing on the ocean current, Mimics coming after them as if they knew the attack was coming. Many are dying instantly. Cage is able to scrap by by hiding in small tucked away corners. When he finally encounters a Mimic, he frantically shoots at it, successfully killing it but not before the Mimic covers him in his acidic blood, killing him. And then he wakes up. He's back at the barracks, being introduced to J Squad. The entire sequence is replaying itself. He's put back into the jacket and dropped back on the beach. This time, he's able to meet Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a famed English soldier known as the "Angel of Verdun" for her winning battle. Another famous nickname: "Full Metal Bitch". Cage saves Rita from being killed and explains to her that he knew exactly when to save her, because he has already lived this moment several times. Rita pleads with him to find her when he wakes up again, before they both are incinerated in an explosion.

When the blood of the Mimic made its way into Cage's body, it passed on a trait of the Mimics onto him. This allows Cage to relive the same moment over and over again, giving him multiple chances to succeed in battle. This ability to control time is what has allowed the Mimics to always be ahead of humanity in the war. Rita once had this power as well, it's what helped her win the Battle of Verdun and made her the legend she is today. Cage approaches Rita when he wakes and explains the situation. The two go off and meet with Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), a scientist who is the only one who believes in the Mimic's ability to control time. Carter and Rita explain to Cage that he must use his newfound power to win this battle on the beach, find the source of the Mimic's powers and destroy it. A natural coward, Cage is not sure that he can handle that responsibility - Carter and Rita tell him that he has no choice. Cage ends up getting killed hundreds of times, reliving the same day over and over, having to repeat the same steps in perpetuity. Each time he fails, he must ensure that he is killed in order to reset. Every day he re-introduces himself to Rita and she continues to train him. She's also quick to kill him in order to insure full reset. The film becomes a recycling of events, as if playing an actual video game, extra lives always guaranteed.

On the surface, Edge of Tomorrow feels like Groundhog Day meets the Halo video games, but it manages to be a lot smarter than that. It plays upon the video game nature of its plot immensely, crafting action sequences that you see so many times that you actually feel involved in them. Director Doug Liman began his career directing smaller, character-driven pieces like Swingers and Go, but works almost exclusively in big budget action films now. To varying degrees of success, he's always managed to include strong characters in a lot of his action pictures. He made the first Bourne Identity film, which is probably the least interesting of the Bourne trilogy, but by no means a poor film. But he's also made Jumper and Fair Game, two films that felt too clever for their own good (also, Jumper is just terrible) . Edge of Tomorrow is a brilliant blend of director and star. Liman and Cruise work together to balance a tonally surprising screenplay (one of the writers is Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie), with laughs and feeling amongst the carnage. Groundhog Day set the standard for this niche genre, but Liman allows Cruise to find his own within the screenplay. The set pieces and the effects all look great but it's almost as if we don't even notice them. We're too preoccupied with the lives of Rita and Cage.

Liman introduces Rita Vrataski in a shot so dramatic that it's obvious that he as in love with the character as we're supposed to be, but Blunt doesn't waiver under that scrutiny. Every time I see Blunt in a role like this, it makes me wonder why she isn't the biggest actress in the world. She's beautiful and talented, adept at comedy even though she is doing none of that here. The type of movie star acting Cruise is doing here is all-encompassing. It's hard for some of the supporting actors like Taylor, Gleeson or Bill Paxton - playing a snarky Southern Master Sergeant - to get more than just a few moments of light before being submerged. Blunt isn't trying to take the spot from Cruise, and she doesn't, but she manages to stand toe-to-toe with him anyway. The film's only real weakness is its obligatory love connection between the two characters, and it knows enough to not harp on it too heavily. Blunt plays the part brutishly, it's obvious that she got into superhuman shape to play this military hero. That a military hero can look like Emily Blunt is something that can only happen in the movies, but she knows what she has to do to make that character feel real and she's able to hit all of the right notes.

By this point, it's already a known fact that Edge of Tomorrow is being considered a box office bomb, with a $178 million price tag and a $28.7 million opening weekend. Mark Harris said it best on Twitter when he explained that Cruise is 51, has a troubled public persona and hasn't had a non-franchise hit in ten years. This doesn't add up to the kind of performer who should be leading a movie like Edge of Tomorrow, and a disappointing opening shouldn't be surprising. And yet, there's a sad irony to the fact that it's this film, the most intelligent, entertaining action film that I've seen all summer, that is the one that is getting disregarded most by American audiences. Word of mouth can't really do much of anything at this point and the studio is mainly just crossing their fingers on overseas success. Not that I think that this is the end for Cruise, looking at his upcoming projects (a Van Helsing reboot and the Top Gun/Jack Reacher sequels), he still seems to be working hard and is still hell-bent on being the action star that he was in the 90's. Looking at those future Cruise films feels depressing, like he learned nothing about what he can do in a movie and what he should do. Cruise's shine is bound to crash hard at some point if the films continue to underperform. I might have to advise you to watch Edge of Tomorrow simply for the posterity.

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