EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014, Doug Liman)
“Where is my safety?” That’s the question Tom Cruise’s character William Cage keeps asking at the beginning of EDGE OF TOMORROW, a clever bit of dialogue (from a script co-written, as usual these days for many Cruise films, by Chris McQuarrie) that helps establish Cage as a bit of a coward. In a twist on his usual cocky action movie persona, where he gleefully leaps into confrontations with naive hubris, Cruise in the first act is afraid, trying to weasel out of any responsibility, and looking for the safest place possible. Another nice recurring line of dialogue comes from Bill Paxton’s platoon, who responds to his query “What is my stance on fate?” with something about how “Through careful preparation I am the master of my own fate.” And such begins the existential quest of this extraordinarily smart and entertaining summer blockbuster — with its video game premise (it’s also easy to name check SOURCE CODE and GROUNDHOG DAY) about living the same day over and over until you get it right (and it’s actually the same two days, to be technical), Cruise finds himself in sort of a Sisyphean situation that takes him from slippery coward to hero.
In his best performance since ROCK OF AGES, Cruise plays Cage with a wide range of emotions between fraidy cat and action stud. He’s funny when he needs to be (watch him do some physical humor when making sex moves in a giant robotic suit) and in the third act, once he’s been in this situation thousands of times, he takes on a thousand-yard stare. It’s the kind of movie star anchoring that big-budget CG-fests need (paging whoever cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the lead in GODZILLA), and it’s the performance that grounds the film enough to engage the audience in a fairly ridiculous premise.
I can’t say Liman brings too much artistically to his direction — his blunt approach to action sequences served him well in THE BOURNE IDENTITY and MR. AND MRS. SMITH, while his ear for comedy was non-intrusive at best in SWINGERS and GO (both of which rely solely on performance and dialogue for laughs, not camera work). Again, his style here doesn’t hurt the material, but I don’t remember any scenes where his framing or blocking elevated the already-strong material. There are some annoying questions raised by several plot points, especially towards the end, but I won’t get into time-travel paradoxes both due to spoilers and because these issues are inherent in this genre. And anyway, despite whatever problems the third act has, the feeling you get leaving the theater is one of exhilaration — thanks to a clever story that respects the audience’s intelligence, and a thought-provoking existential journey that, while not exactly probing the depths of questions of free will with Nietzschean contemplation, still blends humor and suspense in a nifty 110 minutes. And for those of us escaping heat in favor of popcorn and air conditioning, that’s a cut above the cookie-cutter superhero fare we’ve been fed so far.