By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 23, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Frank Masi

Lighthearted on the surface yet cold at its core, the action comedy Knight and Day hops the globe from Boston to Salzburg to Cádiz. But even the remarkable sight of bulls running through Spanish streets — real bulls, real Spain, big budget — is eclipsed by the monumental scale of the heads of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, the stars who play boy-secret-agent meets girl-next-door in this studied exercise in romantic spy-jinks. Jeepers, but their heads are big — Easter Island-statue big! In the very first shot of the very first scene, set in the Wichita, Kan., airport where Roy (Cruise) is in transit undercover, the entire horizon is momentarily blotted out by the back of the actor’s noggin. We admire his haircut at our leisure. Eventually the camera pivots so we can appreciate Cruise’s magnified cheekbones, his teeth, his choice in sunglasses. Then Roy strategically bumps into June (Diaz), a restorer of classic automobiles (you got a problem with that?) on her way to her sister’s wedding in Boston. The couple lock gazes; they were strangers once, but no more. (Cruise and Diaz worked as costars nine years ago in Vanilla Sky.) And lo, we’re temporarily blinded by the size of Diaz’s blue eyes and the expanse of her pink lips as they fill the frame. Anytime Roy and June share a scene — which is often, since Knight and Day presumes a belief in an attraction between the two — director James Mangold goes for an extreme close-up, first of his famous mug, then of hers. A mere mortal might be reduced to whimpers by such scrutiny. These guys, they just glow.

I dwell on scale and shot choices because nothing in Knight and Day is accidental. In this oddly uninvolving caper, the size of skulls makes its own statement: The producers assume that audience interest in movie stars is bigger than audience interest in characters. The conclusion is overdetermined, since Roy and June are such flimsy constructions. Unfortunately, sustained cranial study also leads to the awareness that Cruise and Diaz share little besides visual square footage. Certainly nothing intrinsic about Diaz’s June — characteristically sunny, casual, and sprawling the line between wholesome lass and sexy mess — appears to interest Cruise’s typically precise, controlled, impermeably well-groomed Roy, who, even when being ”funny,” comes across as a man on a mission. The duo emit no whiff of mingled sexual musk as they collide. Yet here the pair are, fatefully bound together by predicaments she didn’t ask for (which only partly accounts for why she shrieks so girlishly in extremis), and which he doesn’t have time to explain as he kills bad guys with ostensibly amusing efficiency. At least they’re not Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher in Killers.

Meanwhile, Mangold, the sophisticated student of cinematic language and genre reference who made Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, dutifully tweaks conventions of the James Bond canon, the Bourne trilogy, and Cruise’s own Mission: Impossible outings, favoring quick, angular action edits and the typographic flash of international datelines. Working with screenwriter Patrick O’Neill, Mangold also sneaks in a party-clever visual reference to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes involving misted breath on a train window, and a verbal shout-out to France’s legendary Hotel du Cap, where the director once held a press conference for his 1997 film Cop Land during the Cannes Film Festival. We’re treated to fancy car chases in which Roy and June are pursued by adversaries including Peter Sarsgaard as a dogged, charmless government agent. For very few scenes and for no good reason except that it’s always great to see her, recent Tony winner Viola Davis plays a no-nonsense CIA boss. Paul Dano has a small, sweetly silly role as a nerd-genius inventor — no great stretch there.

It’s nice, and old-school indeed, that the movie used real locations, real cars, and real, dangerous stuntwork, under the photographic direction of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot Mangold’s excellent 3:10 to Yuma; I like it when a bull is a bull. Then again, publicized boasts that Cruise and Diaz did a lot of their own action scenes mean little. Why are physical training and stunt authenticity so often hyped as actorly assets? Who cares how a star learned an arcane skill to play make-believe? It’s not the sight of Tom Cruise leaping a tall building I want to see, it’s Tom Cruise becoming someone who’s not Tom Cruise. All those close-up shots signal that despite applauding the stars’ enthusiasm for engaging in risky business, Knight and Day plays it awfully safe. C+

Knight and Day

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 110 minutes
  • James Mangold