The locations change as often as the outfits in “Knight and Day,” a high-energy, low-impact caper-comedy that labors to bring a measure of wit, romance and glamour to an overworked spy-thriller template. Busy when it should be fizzy, and rather too fond of using a barrage of bullets or sudden blackout to cut short its so-so comic banter, this inelegant contraption still delivers the requisite eyeful, mostly by way of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Even with star power no longer a B.O. guarantee, the Fox release should lure audiences seeking a midsummer escape; fittingly, prospects look best overseas.
While it resembles and riffs on films as different as “Charade,” “Three Days of the Condor,” the James Bond movies, Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” pics and even this month’s my-hubby-the-hitman romp “Killers,” “Knight and Day” primarily intends to be a snappy update of such classic love-on-the-run espionage thrillers as “North by Northwest” (briefly referenced here when a plane crashes in a cornfield) and “The 39 Steps.”
Trouble is, those films were plenty snappy to begin with, and helmer James Mangold and scribe Patrick O’Neill, as though aware they can’t compete in the frothy sophistication department, try to compensate by upping the action, and the body count, to a level of callous brutality very much in keeping with current standards. Shot, edited and choreographed in the whiplash style customary for most studio actioners, the fisticuffs, knife fights and shootouts here are surprisingly rough, even unpleasant, given the film’s PG-13 rating. Consequently, for all its efforts to approximate a mildly tongue-in-cheek screwball tone, “Knight and Day” rarely attains the effervescence of its forebears; gunshots and CG explosions keep bursting its champagne bubble.
First big setpiece occurs midflight on a near-empty jetliner, not long after car enthusiast June Havens (Diaz) finds herself chatted up by suave stranger Roy Miller (Cruise). It’s clear to the audience, if not June, that Roy is some sort of secret agent, something he confirms by handily dispatching the pistol-packing flight crew.
That includes the pilots, forcing Roy to make the aforementioned crash-landing. Back on the ground, he coolly advises a very confused June to avoid the FBI agents who are on his tail, then slips her a drug — the first of many instances in which the screen fades to black, leaving June to revive in entirely different surroundings.
From there, “Knight and Day” becomes a whirlwind world tour as well as an exercise in prolonged disorientation, as June is hauled in for questioning by the feds, thrust into a high-speed car chase and forced to operate a machine gun under Roy’s expert guidance. All this unspools against a continually shifting backdrop of hot spots including Boston; Brooklyn; the Austrian Alps; Seville, Spain; and a deserted tropical island, while the modes of transport vary from parachute to car carrier to luxury train.
Fortunately for June (and the viewer, who is likely to feel no less jerked-around), her protector exerts a calming influence, and the film’s most charming notion is that, despite June’s uncertainty about whether she can trust this armed and dangerous renegade, Roy’s soothing manner, disarming savoir faire and ability to talk her through even the diciest scenarios make him something of an ideal (mystery) man. Casting Cruise certainly doesn’t hurt; if Roy initially threatens to be a past-his-prime rehash of “Mission: Impossible’s” Ethan Hunt, the star comes off as appreciably less macho and more relaxed, achieving a level of nimble assurance the rest of the film only fitfully lives up to.
Previously paired with Cruise in “Vanilla Sky,” Diaz isn’t quite her co-star’s match here; as written, her June is nowhere near as verbally adroit as Roy, leaving the actress little to do for the first hour but react hysterically to each new setback and scream girlishly as she miraculously dodges every bullet. But as the circumstances become more inviting, the destinations more romantic, Diaz loosens up accordingly, her performance reaching a giddy high late in the game (abetted by a shot of truth serum).
Returning to a contempo setting after two period pictures (“Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma”), Mangold flexes his action muscles with bland technical proficiency yet has difficulty solving the more crucial problem of the script’s tonal inconsistencies. Papering over the cracks somewhat is the surging accompaniment provided by John Powell, by now a pro at scoring spy pics (“Fair Game,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and all three “Bourne” movies).
A scraggly Paul Dano pops up, albeit not often enough, as the nerdy science whiz who invented the pic’s MacGuffin, a device Roy is trying to keep out of the hands of his FBI colleagues (played by Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis, both deserving of meatier supporting roles). Making the most of their brief screen time are Marc Blucas, as June’s former flame, and Dale Dye and Celia Weston, whose characters demystify the not-so-clever pun behind the film’s title.