A lot of studio films just want you to buy a ticket to see them, but when Tom Cruise is involved, he wants to make sure it’s worth your every penny. He lives and dies on every scene (in this film, literally) just to please and wow you. Tom Cruise will turn 52 next month, but he looks 40 and does stunts a 30 year old would have trouble with. He’s one of the last movie stars that you can trust in the world of CGI. If you’re seeing him get batted around like a cat toy, or scaling a tall building, or jumping off a ledge – you know it’s him doing that.
The plot reinvents the present/future in where metallic octopus-like aliens have invaded most of Europe. We find Major Bill Cage (Cruise), a slick PR man for the Army who is tasked with filming the Normandy invasion – there are more WWII parallels in store – against the final attack on the aliens, known as Mimics. After refusing, he gets downgraded to a grunt on the frontlines sent to die – which he does only to wake up again the previous day. And again. And again. He ends up teaming with war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) to find a way to control this anomaly and take down the unkillable enemy.
What’s impressive is how fresh the gimmick manages to be throughout the runtime. This is a nice return to form for Doug Liman, who honestly hasn’t done anything remotely engaging in almost a decade. Here he feels like a new man aided by the script from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Christopher McQuarrie(Hollywood’s best kept secret). He directs the picture with an almost manic sense of movement, keeping the pace constantly tight and forward thinking. The film has plenty of logistical problems when you think about it, but to Liman’s credit he doesn’t allow you much time during the film to contemplate the flaws. Somehow here that doesn’t feel manipulative, because you’re just having so much fun watching this scenario replay itself with darkly comical outcomes. There are plenty of films that have reminded us of a video game, but here might be the first time that that’s a compliment.
Cruise gets to play with some familiar toys of his in this film – smarm, cocky and ass-kicking – but he adds some interesting qualities to the formula as well. There’s a real arc here that plays with our impressions of Cruise. He begins a coward, trying to talk his way out of being on the frontlines to the General, then immediately threatening blackmail, and then straight up trying to run out of the office and escape. And what a run it is. If running is an art form, then Cruise is the master of that art form, but Cruise shows us he can make running a part of the character arc. HE MADE RUNNING PART OF THE CHARACTER ARC. When he first runs out of the office, he flails his arms and huffs like he’s never gone past a jog, but throughout the film gains confidence that shows in his run. It’s not all physical though, as some of the films best moments are when it pauses to not focus on how bad-ass Cage has become, but also to reflect on how repeatedly dying has messed up his psyche.
Emily Blunt gets what is largely a thankless type of role – the female co-star to Cruise – but she manages to not fall behind. She keeps Cruise on his toes, just as Rita continually shows Cage how it’s done. Blunt even gets to kill Cruise repeatedly, as if to make a point not just to him but to us. She’s no second fiddle, she’s first string. She deserves better than a role like this, but also shows she’s not beneath this material, she elevates it. Brendan Gleason and Noah Taylor lend their skills in small bit parts, but the real treasure in the supporting cast is Bill Paxton. His Master Sergeant Farrell is a cartoonish “Let’s Go America!” portrayal of caricature and overkill, and it’s endlessly hilarious and entertaining to watch.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’m forgiving it for its flaws so easily because Summer blockbusters have become so stale in their scale, and so derivative with overloads of sequels and reboots, to the point where even sort-of-good can be immediately upgraded to great. Even if that’s true, that doesn’t change the fact that I’m grateful for a film like this because we really need more of them. This film stumbles, but it really tries for something unique. And these days, that’s something we shouldn’t ignore. Because unlike the protagonist here, we can’t go back in time and change the box office performances of films. We have to act now.