[6 June 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
At one time, he was an unstoppable box office force. More than any other actor of his generation, he managed to combine powerful performance chops with equally intense good looks to become a star of several magnitudes. Better still, he often found a way to work in more serious, less spectacle oriented material to bolster his reputation. Still, he was the Michael Jackson of movies, with all the reverence and rumor mongering that came with such a status. There were suggests (and successful lawsuits) over his sexuality. His marriages made for even more toxic tabloid fodder. But it was the World Wide Web that finally took Tom Cruise down. His infamous Oprah interview, hacked and memed by a sour grape social media, became his PR tipping point. Where once he was a Teflon talent, his every move was now fuel for a freakshow diagnosis.
Throughout this time, however, Cruise continued to make terrific films. In the last ten years alone, he’s been in Collateral, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, Valkyrie, Tropic Thunder, Knight and Day, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Jack Reacher, and Oblivion (we won’t count Lions for Lambs and Rock of Ages for obvious reasons). That’s not a bad run. On the other hand, outside influences like Scientology and marital woes have overwhelmed his consistent track record. So it comes as no surprise that pundits are predicting a “soft” opening for Cruise’s latest film, a crackerjack bit of science fiction entitled Edge of Tomorrow. Based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s light novel All You Need is Kill, it’s a peppy puzzle box thriller in which a coward gets to reclaim his dignity, one death filled day played out over and over again.
More specifically, we meet Major William Cage (Cruise) as the public face of the American military. He’s the spokesman for an ongoing war between the world and an alien race known as “Mimics.” With a D-Day like assault happening within days, the UN General in charge of the mission (Brendan Gleeson) wants someone to sell the upcoming carnage. He wants Cage on the front lines, and naturally, our spineless desk jockey wants nothing to do with that idea.
Labeled a deserter, he finds himself demoted to Private and sent to Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton) to prepare for battle. Once on the beach, taking on the fast moving creatures, Cage dies. Suddenly, he wakes up, believing his experience has been a dream. But when things continue to play out just like they did previously, our hero senses something is wrong.
Turns out, he has been infused with the hive mind of the extraterrestrials, forcing him to relive the same day over and over. He’s also connected mentally to the main threat - an Omega organism in control of the entire invading force. Looking for help, he approaches mythic Mimic murdering machine, the “Full Metal Bitch” Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). She knows what’s happening to him and offers to train him to fight. Seems with his connection and her skills, they can locate the Omega, destroy it, and win the War.
With its Groundhog Day like set-up and popcorn movie payoff, Edge of Tomorrow is a terrific entertainment. It’s funny and inventive, energetic and exciting. It handles its complex premise with the greatest of ease and offers a chance for its star to go against type, if ever so slightly. Indeed, it’s hilarious to watch Cruise weaseling his yellow streaked back out of harm’s way, and even when he’s not successful in avoiding trouble, his tentative acceptance helps buffer us against the bigger ideas coming.
At its heart, Edge of Tomorrow is a movie about two divergent personalities. Cage is the weak-willed everyman thrust into a situation he can’t control. Blunt is the brave face of victory being volunteered for propaganda. What she really is remains a mystery. We finally discover the secret to her sword play - it’s the same thing that’s now plaguing Cruise, and together they make unlikely but linked allies. It’s an unusual move for an actor whose used to being the boss with the rest of his cast acting like complements. Here, Cruise continues to command the screen because of his ability as a performer, not because the screenplay demands it.
Director Doug Liman also understands how to handle the superstar. He never gives him obvious hero moments, keeping the splash to starts and stops until Cage and Vrataski are a lean, mean, perfectly in sync fighting force. Even toward the end, when it’s obvious that sacrifice is in order, everyone gets in on the act. This isn’t your typical Cruise career move - but then again, frankly, nothing he’s done really has been. While he’s always seen as a diva and a divisive force in his films, a movie like Edge of Tomorrow proves this perspective wrong. In fact, Cruise is so much a part of a bigger thing here that it’s hard to fathom a time when he wasn’t merely a high profile in an otherwise earnest ensemble. Everyone involved - Blunt, Paxton, Gleeson - are terrific, taking time to define their characters in comparison to their name above the marquee. This make the film all the more enjoyable.
Indeed, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best of the still struggling Summer 2014 season. It bounces and sways, anticipates and delivers without once overwhelming us with contrivance or cliche. Sure, the story is complex, provoking thought and inspiring questions. The ending also acts as ambiguous, a resolution as vague as the one Inception offered without the spinning totem. That Cruise sells each and every moment here is a testament to who he is as an actor and who he isn’t as a famous face. Joke about him all you want, or argue that his best days are behind him, but Edge of Tomorrow would be nothing without its star. Tom Cruise may currently be a laughing stock, but it’s he who will be giggling as the reviews wander in.