Frank Masi/20th Century Fox
Cruise takes Diaz on an international tour of danger!
The Dinner : Sausage and onion pizza, beer, at Pagliacci (550 Queen


Tom Cruise Is Still Tryin' Hard

Frank Masi/20th Century Fox
Cruise takes Diaz on an international tour of danger!
The Dinner: Sausage and onion pizza, beer, at Pagliacci (550 Queen Anne Ave. N.).

The Movie: Knight and Day, at Pacific Place (600 Pine St.).

The Screenplate: Alec Baldwin once advanced the idea that, for actors of his '80s generation, you couldn't become a movie star if you first became known on TV, if your face became associated with soap operas and deodorant commercials. Baldwin, currently doing some of his best-ever work on 30 Rock, has come full circle from his soap opera days. The career of Tom Cruise, only four years younger, may prove his point. While Baldwin was toiling on The Doctors and Knots Landing, Cruise went straight from Taps to Risky Business. And while Baldwin is clearly the better actor, Cruise may in fact be the last movie star of the 20th century. He's worked hard for that status; he clings to it, perhaps more than a 48-year-old (next month) should. People mock him for his smile, his stature, his energy, his couch jumping on Oprah, his cryptic serial marriages, his Scientology...and yet even a mediocre popcorn movie like Knight and Day makes you appreciate how he's still trying.

No matter what unfathomable thoughts are going on behind his now middle-aged brow, the guy sets a standard. Cruise delivers a reliable, quality product that some take for granted. Critics may be eager to mock, but those same cynics are the sort to end up in line, late at night in Lower Queen Anne, at the perennial favorite pizza joint in town...

Like Tom Cruise, Pagliacci has been around a while (it was founded in 1979). And like all his blockbusters and sub-Oscar awards, Pagliacci has long dominated our annual Best of Seattle® readers' poll. So much so, in fact, that we granted it a Best of Seattle® Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 after dominating the "best pizza" category for 22 years. Cruise has been a movie star for about the same time.

Is Knight and Day his best movie? That's like asking if this slice of pepperoni or that slice of plain cheese at Pag's is the best you've ever ordered. I like Tom Cruise movies and I like Pagliacci, and there is a range of quality to both. Just as pizza slices may vary from overly greasy to oven-scorched, the Cruise canon ranges from Rain Man to Cocktail. Considered strictly as an actor, he's been excellent in Magnolia and a self-caricature in Mission: Impossible III. Certainly there's a vestigial bit of Ethan Hunt in Knight and Day (and a bit of Jason Bourne, as many scoffers have noted). But there's also considerably more self-lampoon to the character of Roy Miller--a CIA superspy gone rogue--than many give credit. The website has fun compiling the movie's critical pans, and all of them have some foundation. I would argue, however, that the movie is best enjoyed as a cartoon version of the Cruise persona, and that the star is quite aware of the self-critique.

Since his breathtakingly funny turn as vulgar, profane Hollywood producer Les Grossman in 2008's Tropic Thunder (now supposedly to be the basis of an entire feature film), Cruise may now be seeing a way out of the leading man trap. You can't stay in those virile action roles forever. Bruce Willis got out gracefully; not so Harrison Ford. After the three very profitable Mission: Impossible movies, what more does Cruise had to prove in that department? You can't do your own stunts (or pretend to) forever. You can't take off your shirt in every movie (though Cruise does here, after whisking Cameron Diaz away to an undisclosed tropical island location). Back in 2002, he was willing to spoof himself in the Austin Powers movie Goldmember.

Knight and Day is also essentially a spoof. Secret agent Miller, who picks up June Havens (Diaz) on a flight from Kansas to Boston, radiates crazy from the start. He isn't The Spy Who Came in From the Cold so much as The Spy Who Jumped on Oprah's Couch. Nothing he says can be believed. There's no reason a girl should trust him. If his superiors (Viola Davis, Peter Sarsgaard) say he's a mendacious, criminal psycho, we should probably believe them. In his chatterbox sincerity, his loquacious chivalry toward June, he comes across as a spy off his meds, badly in need of lithium, a bipolar action hero.

Am I being glib (as Cruise once accused NBC's Brian Williams of being)? [Correction: Matt Lauer; thanks to sharp-eyed reader below.] Fine, let me be glib. The character of Miller--nuts, lethal, polite--is completely unhinged. He says he wants to protect June, when he's obviously using her, dragging her into ever more dangerous situations all around the globe. (The plot MacGuffin is a perpetual battery you can fit in your hand, the answer to our present energy crisis.) Before landing a jet in a cornfield, Miller sensibly finishes his drink first. After their first night together, curiously lacking in sex, he covers June's apartment with considerate Post-It notes and makes her breakfast. Any sensible woman would flee, but instead June accompanies him to New York, some remote island, Austria, Spain... where they duck bullets, rescue the magical battery inventor (Paul Dano), and negotiate with arms merchants and CIA bosses. It's excessive, but so is Roy. It's implausible, but the movie, directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma), never seriously asks you to believe in anything. The only question is whether the heroine can believe in the hero; in that respect, the movie owes a huge debt to Charade.

If Roy Miller (or Tom Cruise) walked into the LQA Pagliacci, talking way too much and being way too solicitous, the staff would be cool about it. They've seen weirder; they've dealt with the drunks from Peso's and Ozzie's; they've pretty much seen it all. Like the U District location, the staff is young, the house music reflects their tastes, and they're tolerant of quirky customers. In which respect, you could imagine Diaz's character, June (who restores muscle cars for a living), working there during high school. She's a tomboy pushing 30, manless, who wouldn't mind learning how to shoot guns, land jets, and battle assassins on a train. If Roy is crazy, she's liberated by that craziness.

Is Knight and Day a great movie? Of course not. But it's the most enjoyable summer action movie to date this season; the blood and violence are more Road Runner than Jason Bourne, and no one--including the director and stars--seems too invested in convincing you this isn't also a cartoon. If, following the film, my tab at Pag's was $10.11 (two slices and a pint of Mac & Jack's), same as a movie ticket, both experiences were also equal in value.

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