Knight and Day is an exceedingly absurd film, and in all honesty, I don’t know whether that does more to help it or harm it. It has all the reliable conventions of action capers – impossible stunts, big explosions, well-choreographed car chases, shootouts – but it also has the character development and dialogue of a low-grade comedy, and there’s rarely a scene when they’re seamlessly interwoven. That being said, it has its moments of great entertainment, and I admit that I liked the onscreen chemistry between Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. They’re both given a number of tiresome one-liners and sight gags, but they deliver them so well that one can’t help but be just a little impressed. Perhaps they were deluding themselves into believing that their roles should be taken seriously.
I think the problem is that, for all the joking around it does, the film really isn’t as tongue-in-cheek as it lets on. A tongue-in-cheek film, while highly ridiculous, is also meant to be sly with its humor. The comedy of Knight and Day is so obvious and strategically placed that it seems less like a stylistic choice and more like a last-ditch effort to save the film from becoming too formulaic. Indeed, the general story is practically a checklist of spy film clichés: The mysterious yet charming secret agent, the government operatives pursuing him, the unwitting female accomplice, the device or object that instigates the chase, the surprise double agent, foreign and/or exotic locations. Nevertheless, I would rather a film follow a formula successfully than fall short of its goals as an experiment.
The plot centers on an average woman named June Havens (Diaz), who, after an encounter at a Wichita airport, unwittingly becomes involved with super agent Roy Miller (Cruise) and his efforts to transport a new and top secret source of energy known only as Zephyr. Pursuing him is a CIA agent named Fitzgerald (Peter Saarsgard), who tells June that Roy has gone rogue, has been lying to her from the very start, and is a threat to national security. Likewise, Roy tells June to not believe a word Fitzgerald says, that Fitzgerald and his superiors would sound very convincing, and that she should stick with him no matter what. Who is she to believe? She knows she wants to believe Roy, seeing as she fell in love with him the instant they met on their flight from Wichita – the passengers of which, incidentally, were all undercover assassins sent to kill Roy.
Part of Roy’s mission involves tracking down the creator of Zephyr, college genius Simon Feck (Paul Dano), who has the eccentric computer-nerd stereotype down to a tee. Finding Simon and securing Zephyr takes Roy and June from a picturesque tropical island to a train ride through the Alps of Austria to the romantic cobblestone streets of Spain, where we’re treated to a spectacular motorcycle chase. Unfortunately, it ties in to a monumentally unfunny scene in which June is injected with a truth serum, causing her to not only yak incessantly, but also to do so in a dreamy, giggly state; after being rescued by Roy, who by now is in the middle of a shootout, June casually suggests that they go have sex, thinking now would be the perfect time. Had June not already been subjected to several surprise druggings, maybe this scene would have played better.
It’s amazing that such big talent wasn’t put to better use. Cruise and Diaz give wonderful performances – as wonderful as an action comedy permits, at any rate – and yet the material doesn’t seem to fit them. They seem too, I don’t know, too established, too sophisticated for it. Which actors, then, would have been more appropriate? Perhaps Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, most recently seen in Killers, another action comedy about a super agent, an unwitting female partner, and a sinister plot to have the agent killed; although it was an awful film, the balancing act between comedy and suspense was there, and goodness knows the leads were goofy enough. Knight and Day, since it is so thoroughly preposterous, might have benefited from Kutcher and Heigl’s less refined, more satirical performances.
As it is, I do give Cruise and Diaz credit for keeping the story moving and for preventing it from becoming stale. They’re both great actors. The problem isn’t so much with them than it is with the characters they play, neither being developed properly. Take June; at the end of the film, she reveals a side of herself I never believed possible, not even within the context of a silly action caper. And then there’s Roy; I liked him as a secret agent – especially when he displays his fighting skills – but I couldn’t stand him as a conversationalist. His dialogue is just too jokey. The annoying thing is that, in spite of this, Cruise plays his part like the true professional he is, which is to say he’s really quite good. Strange, how actors can put so much effort into roles that don’t really need it.