by Tony Dayoub
It's early still, but this summer, it looks like the action film to beat is Edge of Tomorrow. It's not entirely a surprise to those who've followed Tom Cruise's career closely. The actor may have limited range. But within that narrow space, he knows what plays and what doesn't (his misguided stab at expanding his action hero repertoire with the still competent Jack Reacher notwithstanding). Cruise is masterful at playing bewildered. And unlike Sylvester Stallone, another favorite action hero of mine, Cruise is self effacing enough to trust the writers and filmmakers he's surrounded himself with.
Where rumors often leak out from on set that actor-director Stallone allegedly dominates more inexperienced directors he works with (which is quite evident from the personal stamp all of Sly's movies exhibit), what we generally hear about Cruise is that he shows up, does his stuff and leaves. If Cruise is demanding at all, it is in the way he pushes himself to up his game around smart screenwriters like Christopher McQuarrie—Edge of Tomorrow is their third collaboration—and his almost compulsive need to seek out experienced directors like Doug Liman. In the case of Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise has also raised Liman's game. The not untalented Liman has directed some notable films. But Edge of Tomorrow might represent a career best. Brilliantly edited to maximize both the humor and pathos inherent in its Groundhog Day-meets-Aliens-meets-Saving Private Ryan set-up, Edge of Tomorrow awards the deserving Cruise with a new kind of character he hasn't quite played before, a coward.
Cruise's Major Bill Cage is a media strategist recruited by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to report from the front lines on a major offensive against invading aliens called Mimics. Their name refers to their peculiar prescience. They know how and when we're going to attack them, and this ability has inevitably led us to lose time and time again on every front. After quite demonstratively showing how frightened he is of going onto the field, Cage is unceremoniously lumped in with a crack-squad of fighters (led by Bill Paxton) who all die horrible deaths, Cage included. But something in the way he dies causes Cage to repeat the day over and over, getting better and better with each subsequent death, hooking up with another soldier who has had the same experience. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) got so good at anticipating the Mimics that she became known as "The Angel of Verdun" for leading the humans on their only victory against the Mimics so far.
Quite quickly, Liman uses repetition and variations in the nuance of Cruise's performance to illustrate a growing weariness and cynicism in Cage. At first, Cage is thrown by his circumstances. Then he sees an opportunity to grow as a fighter and eventually defeat the enemy. And then the drudgery of it all starts to weigh on him. Likewise, the movie goes through its own arc, starting with an all-out assault on a Mimic beachhead that is as intense and horrific (or at least as this questionably PG-13 movie can be) as Spielberg's Ryan. Perhaps commenting on summer blockbusters' tendency to fall into repetitive rhythms, Edge of Tomorrow then shifts to a more comedic mode, finding and fascinating and unique ways for Cruise to go splat a la Wile E. Coyote. And just before it all starts to feel ad nauseam, Liman and McQuarrie anticipate the viewer to highlight Cage's resignation that he may never escape the relentless, punishing time loop.
It's a brilliant conceit that outshines both the tech-ier aspects of the film—the intriguing mecha-gear all of the soldiers wear—and the insistent oddness of the alien Mimics that basically turn out to be nothing but faceless ciphers. Whatever appeal Edge of Tomorrow may lack for gearheads or fanboys is more than made up by a charismatic, late-career performance by Cruise that actually confers a fascinating character arc for him to explore. As far as I'm concerned, that's all I really need for a compelling summer tentpole.