Saturday, June 7, 2014

EDGE OF TOMORROW - Groundhog Troopers

I really like Tom Cruise. There was once a time when this statement wasn't remotely out of the ordinary, as Cruise was one of the few movie stars of the 80's to actually gain popularity in the 90's as the modern ideal of the action hero morphed from beefy Olympian to more of an everyman, but the guy seems to have fallen out of public favor. The fact that, apart from Brad Bird's examplary live-action directing debut on Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol aside, his movies haven't been terribly great lately.

And while he made some bold choices when choosing roles a few times in the last couple decades, lately he seems to have been on - well, for lack of a better term, Cruise Control, choosing parts that ask little from him outside of the ability to smile, punch, and run.

Luckily, Edge of Tomorrow proves to be a major course correction.

Perhaps the best tool that Edge has is that it shows us the casually likable and charismatic persona we've come to associate with Tom Cruise as belonging to a cowardly wimp, a military marketing man who's never been in combat that gets thrown into a last-ditch attack on the invading alien Mimics and - through a freak accident - hijacks the aliens' ability to relive the events of the day, retaining all his memories.

But he has to die in order to "reset." So while we see Cruise's William Cage having courage, self-respect, and decency beaten into him (similarly to Bill Murray's Phil from Groundhog Day) with his mounting deaths alongside his burgeoning combat skills, the film is less about him finding a way to "escape" the loop than to do something worthwhile with his new-found abilities. Not that simply putting Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers in a blender and calling it a day wouldn't have been a pretty good idea on its own, but it's nice to see how the film goes about raising the stakes in the finale after spending so much time with a character who's essentially immortal.

Incidentally, and I do not mean this as an insult in the slightest, this may be the best video game movie we're likely to get any time soon. The "Live. Die. Repeat." marketing mantra is a perfect allegory to dying, respawning, and getting a little further in a game, and the characters, military tech, and alien design could easily have come from any number of modern high-profile shooters (Crysis especially springs to mind). But one of the refreshing elements of Edge is how everything is up for grabs. The film is based on a Japanese light novel (by the name of All You Need is Kill) but comes without the predetermined feeling of so many modern blockbusters that spend just as much time setting up the next sequel as telling their own story.

And this movie is wholly interested in telling its own story. While it paints in a good many supporting characters (ranging from "charming-but-forgettable" to "scene-stealingly awesome") the focus remains squarely on Cage and the surprising kindred spirit he finds in Rita Vratraski (Emily Blunt, getting essentially a whole movie to do what she only got to showcase for a couple scenes in Looper), the only other person who believes Cage about his abilities. Blunt and Cruise are both charismatic and in good enough shape that they could basically coast on those traits and let the film's (legitimately fabulous) action scenes do the rest, but they don't. Even as Cruise allows the sheen of Cage's glossy persona to get pitted and scarred by his endless days of doomed combat, the viewer (and Cage, simultaneously) see the person begin to emerge from the armor of "the Iron Bitch." Anyone who's familiar with certain genres of anime or manga will be familiar with the "inexperienced hero teaming up with the emotionally-distant female badass" but these two really manage to make it sing, especially since Blunt has to portray an evolving relationship even though she never knows Cage for more than a couple days at a time.

The third MVP in this film is Doug Liman, a profoundly underrated director who here gets literally unlimited excuse to indulge in big crazy action sequences, but instead uses them in meaningful ways to either set up or raise stakes, or drive home a character or narrative beat. Liman is no stranger to this, having directed the first (and my personal favorite) of the Bourne films as well as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which I would legitimately rate as one of the best "pure" action films of the 00's. And in a canny move, the "biggest" sequence of the film is the invasion scene that happens early on, but the stakes and tension get ratcheted up so expertly for the finale that it doesn't feel remotely "small" even though it's not as much of a visual showcase. It's like Liman is doing Michael Bay in reverse.

Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best surprises of the summer, a film that could have been wholly disposable junk but instead turns out to be a great piece of popcorn entertainment with a genuine emotional core, a brain, and great sense of humor. It wears its influences proudly, from war films (the opening invasion very much recalls the D-day invasion from Saving Private Ryan) to sci-fi forebears (this is another movie using the marines of Aliens as a reference guide, right down to Bill Paxton coming full circle and essentially playing a white Apone), but does more than enough new to stand on its own.

And Tom Cruise is just really really good in it. There are few actors this good at this sort of genuine commitment in blockbuster roles, both in terms of selling grounded genuine emotion even in ludicrous situations and in in balancing the emotional wringer that Cage endures with the necessary lightness that makes the film's humorous beats work (everything involving Paxton's Master Sergeant Ferrell is gold, by the way - this is some "Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America: The First Avenger" stuff) - and yes, he's still REALLY good at the physically demanding aspects of his films. The dude can run.

So watch. Enjoy. Repeat...if you feel compelled to.

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