KNIGHT AND DAY, directed by James Mangold, written by Patrick O’Neill, 109 minutes, rated PG-13.
James Mangold’s action-comedy-romantic-thriller “Knight and Day” covers all the bases, and it gets the job done nicely in one of summer’s better movies. In doing so, it also gets the job done for its co-star, Tom Cruise, who needed this movie to be a success in order to continue the Herculean effort of getting his damaged career back on track.
It has taken him years to do so (and he still has a ways to go), but the long march back to the top began by playing Les Grossman in the 2008 comedy “Tropic Thunder,” which critics and audiences hailed, and then by juxtaposing that performance against the gripping turn he delivered in the 2008 thriller “Valkyrie.”
And, so, two years later, here we are. After recently playing Grossman again at the MTV Movie Awards, Cruise comes off that bizarre high with “Knight and Day,” a movie that’s just as shrewd and as calculating as every step he has taken since leaping onto Oprah’s sofa and then stupidly tapping into his controversial religion, Scientology, to take on prescription drugs in a disastrous PR move that crippled his image — and his career — for years.
Cruise still is feeling each pinch — he never should have allowed his personal views to demystify how his fans view him. But by keeping his mouth shut and turning out good movies, he slowly is coming back. “Knight and Day” came in a respectable third at the weekend box office, losing to “Toy Story 3” and “Grown Ups,” each of which had the edge of playing on more screens. He has two films in pre-production (“Mission: Impossible IV” and “The Hardy Men”) and 11 in development, including a movie based on Grossman, which suggests Hollywood hasn’t shut the door on him yet.
For those who love movies — and who follow the careers that spring from them — all of this has been a fascinating display of what it takes to shake off a shaky past and rebuild it with the help of a well-paid think tank. You could make a movie out of what has gone down here — and perhaps Cruise should.
Anyway, about “Knight and Day” — it’s a good time. In it, Cruise is Roy Miller, a secret agent out to make certain that an all-powerful battery made by an intellectual dweeb (Paul Dano) doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Everyone wants the battery, which not only puts pressure on Miller, but which also literally pushes him into the arms of June Havens (Cameron Diaz), a goofy gal from Boston who is at the wrong place at the wrong time when Miller needs a diversion.
All sorts of mishaps go down between them, but protecting that battery from those who shouldn’t have it proves dangerous and difficult, especially when Roy and June fall for each other. But what’s June to do when she learns from two other agents (Viola Davis, Peter Sarsgaard) that Miller might be paranoid and unstable? It’s her mixed feelings that tug the movie into unexpected directions.
Beyond the exotic locations (the film reduces the world to the size of a postage stamp and skips from one country to the next), what’s so good about “Knight and Day” isn’t just Patrick O’Neill’s smart, witty script, but the chemistry shared between Cruise and Diaz, who sell O’Neill’s words with aplomb. You can’t manufacture what these two generate on-screen. They’re a well-paired team, here to have fun, and that fun translates beautifully in a movie that features moments that are intentionally and deliriously absurd.
On DVD and Blu-ray disc
THE WHITE RIBBON, written and directed by Michael Haneke, 145 minutes, rated R.
This terrific film from Michael Haneke is unshakably good, particularly at the end, when the disease destroying the core of the story (that would be humanity at its lowest depths of depravity) has gone on to fully reveal its dysfunction, its divisiveness, its backhanded brutality and its overall rotten awfulness.
The film observes the collapse of a small town on the eve of World War I. We’re in Germany. The film is shot in black-and-white. The images are bleak, cruel and stunning, not unlike the movie itself.
Haneke wrote the script, and just as his fans expect, he works by evasion, leading audiences to a well that reflects nothing back. For those who like their movies spelled out for them, this isn’t for you, in spite of the subtitles. For those who appreciate the grace of a director who employs narrative discretion, this absolutely is for you.
The film opens with a man on a horse racing toward his house. Since the movie is told in flashback by way of the village’s now-elderly schoolteacher (Ernst Jacobi), we know the man is a doctor and that he breaks his arm when his horse trips over a hidden wire somebody strung between two trees. But who strung the wire? And why do they have it in for the doctor? Could somebody have benefited from his absence?
Maybe. Maybe not. To Haneke, it doesn’t matter. Braced against his own coldness, he presses on — there are others to undo in this village of grim-looking people. Look, for instance, at the dead woman ground up at the mill. What happened to her? Or look at the young boy with Down’s syndrome who is savagely beaten and left to hang in a forest with a bag on his head. Why? Or the barn that is set ablaze in the middle of the night. Or the pet bird whose throat is slit.
Death is, in fact, everywhere in this movie — it’s alive and well and swallowing the living whole. People are ridiculed and reduced to nothing. Children are beaten and scorned, particularly the children of the village’s pastor (Burghart Klaussner), two of whom provide the film its title in that they are forced to wear white ribbons of purity until he believes that he can trust them again. Those children are Klara and Martin (Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf, each outstanding), and you’ve never seen such a mean-mouthed duo, the lot of which reflects their father’s own rage, which he repeatedly takes out on them.
And what about that? What does such abuse do to a child? Does it carry over to them? In this movie, the children move in marching groups — you’d swear they were a gang if they weren’t so polite to the adults they come upon in town. And yet there’s something about them the film only brushes against. Are they the cause for the village’s atrocities? Could children be capable of such violent acts? Who knows?
Shot superbly by cinematographer Christian Berger, “The White Ribbon” is stark and haunting, expertly acted and directed, morally corrupt and memorable for all of it. It’s framed as a mystery, but really, Heneke’s sights are on his characters, the evil inherent in people, and how that evil, when organized, has the potential to grow into something more repellent if left uncapped, as it is here. The white ribbons in this movie are meant to signify purity, but what we don’t see in this film is the power of another color — red — and how, years later, it would come to define another generation of Germans in another war waiting to bloom on another horizon.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.