If Knight and Day is about anything—and that will be up for debate—it might just be the crystal-clear blueness of Cameron Diaz’s eyes. The camera often lingers on close-ups of her face, giving the audience ample time to study her voluptuous cheekbones, cheerfully upturned lips, and the cornflower clarity of those exquisite peepers. After a while, the effect is nearly mesmerizing. It’s as if her eyes were telling the viewer, “You will find this movie entertaining, very entertaining…” If the strategy doesn’t entirely work, it seems fitting for a movie whose heroine finds her consciousness commandeered (via mysterious potions, etc.) more than once.
Diaz plays vintage-car restorer June Havens, who was apparently named after an over-55 retirement community. On a business trip from Wichita to Boston, she bumps into superspy Roy Miller (Tom Cruise), rumored to have gone rogue. In his possession is a mysterious weapon that he is attempting to keep out of the hands of fellow agents Fitzgerald (the dependably creepy Peter Sarsgaard) and George (Viola Davis), as well as a ruthless Spanish weapons dealer (an underused and cartoonish Jordi Mollà). But once June gets entangled in Roy’s aborted escape plan, he devotes as much energy to protecting her as he does to saving the free world.
At first, June is terrified by her relentless pursuer, and with good reason. Thanks to Roy, she barely survives a plane crash, a hectic car chase through Boston, and multiple shootouts. But anyone who’s ever seen a Hollywood movie knows that a handsome secret agent has a way of easing a girl’s defenses. A former Eagle Scout, Roy is unfailingly polite, leaving June helpful Post-it Notes and always addressing her by her first name. Even after they find themselves in a seemingly inescapable situation, he can’t help being reassuring. “Don’t worry, June. I know this looks bad, but I got this.”
Knight and Day gives Cruise a chance to mock his own action-hero persona as well as his roles in films like Mission Impossible and even Collateral. Of course, he still gets to carry out stunts (though some are degraded by murky film quality and clumsy green-screening), including his signature move—the one where he runs really fast toward the camera while escaping a fireball or some such thing. For his fans, it’s a win-win. And though he and Diaz have little sexual spark, they do play off each other at times in an appealingly screwball fashion.
But their genial rapport is complicated by a terrible conceit, which involves Roy drugging June whenever the two find themselves in those seemingly inescapable situations. (He argues it’s easier for him to protect her when she’s unconscious.) In these moments, the audience’s point of view is aligned with June’s, and because she is drifting in and out of awareness, the viewers never see just how Roy manages to escape with her in tow. While this conceit is played for laughs, it also seems like a cheat on a part of the filmmakers. Couldn’t director James Mangold and screenwriter Patrick O’Neill be bothered to imagine their characters out of the scenarios they throw them into?
Another problem is the way Mangold and O’Neill attempt to deflect the ethical implications of Roy’s methods. June is granted a speech where she is voices her outrage over being knocked out according to Roy’s whims, but it’s quickly followed by another in which a decision she makes compromises her and Roy’s safety. A tacked-on epilogue, seemingly informed by the Pretty Woman school of gender relations, addresses the issue a second time, and is again unconvincing.
Knight and Day’s biggest trouble, however, is the pacing of the action. As the film ricochets from location to location (Boston, Brooklyn, Salzburg, Seville, to name a few), there is never enough downtime for the audience to catch its breath, much less for any suspense to develop. It’s a surprising misstep for Mangold, who recently staged the taut and frequently breathtaking remake of 3:10 to Yuma. In that film, he managed to highlight his stars’ charisma while telling a suspenseful yarn. Here he gets only half the job done, and though Diaz’s eyes sure are pretty, they can’t make up for what’s missing: a thrillingly engaging plot.