Knight and Day

The thing about Tom Cruise is that even though he’s kind of a nutjob in real life, put him in a movie that plays to his strengths and he’ll dazzle you the way he did 20 years ago. “Knight and Day” is a reminder that he still has his movie-star appeal, and maybe even more so than we realized. For while his career has mostly focused on action-hero and dramatic roles, here he handles comedy and secret-agent stuff with equal agility. Who knew?? I ask you, who knew?

Cruise plays Roy Miller, an FBI agent who may or may not have gone rogue and may or may not be trying to procure a super-powerful new energy device for his own purposes. We meet him through June Havens (Cameron Diaz), a woman he runs into at the Wichita airport who’s flying home to Boston for her sister’s wedding. There is some physical chemistry between them, mostly in the form of June becoming flustered and flighty (you know, the way all women always do in the presence of any attractive man). Soon they’re running from men who are trying to shoot Roy, who are either bad guys or good guys, and June is either his partner or his hostage. Involved in all of this is a spacey tech genius who needs to be protected, played by Paul Dano.

Roy tells June that if the other guys (led by Peter Sarsgaard as an FBI agent) get a hold of her, they’ll tell her that Roy is not to be trusted because he’s insane. Given what she has already seen of his behavior, this would be plausible. Nonetheless, she doesn’t know who’s telling the truth, Roy or the other guys, and sticking with Roy seems to provide her best hope for survival. Plus, as mentioned, she kind of has the hots for him.

Thus ensues a globe-trotting adventure not unlike those in the “Mission: Impossible” films, except that here Cruise is funny, and possibly out of his mind. Roy Miller is a terrifically engaging character, always confident and enthusiastic, even when things are going awry and he’s moving to plan B. He’s the kind of dynamically optimistic smooth-talker who can shoot you in the leg, then convince you he’s done you a favor. (That’s not a fanciful example. He really does that.)

June’s character is quite a bit less well written, though performed cheerfully — and non-gratingly — by Diaz. June talks to herself an awful lot, usually for the audience’s benefit (a sign of lazy writing), and flits randomly from one state of mind to another. One minute she’s panicking over the panic-worthy circumstances surrounding her; the next she’s taking it all in stride, as if to the manner born. One minute she thinks Roy is awful for basically kidnapping her; the next minute — and I mean literally one minute later — she’s melting in his arms, poised for a make-out session. The screenplay, originally by newcomer Patrick O’Neill, was subjected to multiple rewrites over the course of its five-year (!) journey to cinemas; it’s clear more attention was ultimately paid to Roy than to June.

The director, James Mangold, has previously dealt with crazy characters (“Girl, Interrupted”), romantic comedy (“Kate & Leopold”), and action (“3:10 to Yuma”), so “Knight and Day” seems to come fairly naturally. The special effects in the scenes that require them aren’t particularly convincing — I can’t believe there wasn’t a higher budget for that sort of thing — but at least they are shot well. Mangold maintains a light tone throughout, focusing the greatest tension on emotional issues like whether June can trust Roy, rather than on life-or-death ones. So it’s more comedy than action, which is fine, because the comedy is zesty and not overly quirky, and mostly pretty funny. More of this, Mr. Cruise! More of this.

(Note: The title is awful. The “Knight” part sort of comes into play, tangentially, but there’s no reason for the “Day” part. And as a whole, “Knight and Day” doesn’t mean anything. THIS ANGERS ME.)

B (1 hr., 44 min.; PG-13, some profanity, one F-word, a lot of action violence, nothing graphic.)