There’s something amiss in the state of film (and American foreign policy—more anon) if Tom Cruise is funnier than Emily Blunt in the new movie, Edge of Tomorrow. Not that I wish to blame Cruise. For a well-intentioned 52-year-old three-time divorcee with a net worth as low as $250 million, and few people to talk to other than David Miscavige (the Scientology supremo), he’s muddling through. But his jawline has dropped and his recent films have tended to drift and yaw so that all he can count on is the $50 million whenever he rolls out that Lalo Schiffrin music for another Mission Impossible.
Is funny the point? Alas, no, for if Edge of Tomorrow recognizes the risk of being a comedy it drops that for firepower and kill counts. The best moments in the picture come early when Cruise as a major in military public relations finds himself confronting a vast, humorless general (Brendan Gleeson) who is about to ship him off on a new Normandy invasion to free France and the European mainland from Mimic invasion. (Why do the Mimics want to invade Earth?—they’re idiots. Isn’t it striking that real aliens have given us a wide berth?)
Tom’s part, Major William Cage, is a jerk, a fraud, a coward and a smart-ass and he’s getting his comeuppance, something for which Cruise has always shown a curious predilection—as if he longs to break free of Cruise control. The best things in Jerry Maguire are Tom being humiliated, and the finest thing he has ever done is Magnolia, where his cult leader is taken apart by that sweet, dogged investigator (April Grace). In short, Cruise has an instinct for comedy, for making a chump of himself, and having that steel grille of a smile shatter like the cat’s teeth in Tom and Jerry cartoons. What a film this could have been if Cage had turned out a coward and fraud erroneously elevated to the status of international hero and savior. (There is little hope for this country until we make fictional heroes of cowards and frauds. It’s not enough to keep electing them.)
In which case, there could have been a running cross-talk, flirtation and one-upmanship between Cruise and Emily Blunt, who plays a daft Joan of Arc-like figure in the battle against the Mimics. And then suppose that the Mimics, instead of doing their hi-speed octopi from hell routine, with hissy fits and exploding 3D attacks, had been allowed to talk. (It’s my hope that if and when the aliens do come they’ll raise our level of conversation—ideally, I want Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Stanley Tucci as the three stooges of Mimic-land, with less hurling themselves at the camera and more barbs fit for Oscar Wilde or Groucho.) That is a format in which Emily Blunt would be seen to advantage. She is a smoky comic actress who can do glance and talk at the same time in the manner of Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, and Barbara Stanwyck.
Now, I realize that being chosen for the lead in a Tom Cruise action film is a transforming career move for Blunt. (As in, can she ever recover?) She may have made more money from this nonsense (it cost $180 million) than from everything she’s done before (including My Summer of Love, Your Sister’s Sister, and the neglected The Adjustment Bureau, taken from Philip K. Dick). She has no good clothes in this film (she wears steel and leather throughout), but she looks like a triathlete and gazes on Cruse as if he’s the deserving alien in view—after all, he is old enough to be her Dad, and the one smooch they are allowed in this picture got mocking cheers at my screening. The film might have been sharper if they had been father and daughter, snarling at each other over family history and failed duties.
Of course, Edge of Tomorrow flinches from any of these prospects. Long before the end, it’s an old-fashioned high tech army fighting the Mimics, who are as spirited and pretty as Blunt. (You do think of Sigourney Weaver vs. the Bitch.) The combat is endless and predictable, which ought to suffice as cruel and unusual punishment. Doug Liman, the director here, has had a career on dull, frantic, marginally sane action pictures. Now he has the chance to do an insane animated battle with people and all he can manage is dull. Still, somewhere there’s a cute idea: a fraud and a tomboy, wisecracking their way through mayhem towards Armageddon. It needed a mix of Preston Sturges and Stanley Kubrick. I’ll bet any on-set record of Blunt and Cruise larking around with clunky costumes and clunkier dialogue would have been more appealing. But jargon and technology are killing the country anyway.
So let me turn to American foreign policy, the best reason for reviewing this picture. The New Republic has recently found room for a modest proposal in that noble cause—everyone is reading it, or saying they’ve read it, and David Brooks said it was “brilliant.” The only thing the essay could not find space for, I felt (and I am European originally), was observations on how the US had betrayed its own lofty, self-appointed burden as foreign policy delivery system for the world. Foreign policy for an empire like the American (whose funeral is taking so long) is a cultural arrogance that can take many forms, one of which is suspect high-power entertainments from Bob Hope to Tom Cruise. Long ago, American foreign policy found itself in a situation where Mossadegh’s overthrow, Vietnam, and the war in Iraq had to fight for credibility with, say, Casablanca, Saving Private Ryan, and Edge of Tomorrow (this film was going to be called All You Need is Kill, but good taste prevailed, like mayonnaise). In other words, there is a way in which the “deprived” world regards American ideals and imperium through the crazed prism of its movies and its advertising. And rightly so: Walt Disney was always more serious and funnier than Henry Kissinger, and he did more damage.
In this sense, Edge of Tomorrow is a fable that says let’s go proactive, even as far as Paris (but not Syria) and shoot the hell out of the enemy, the Louvre, and anything that moves with swagger, guns like death support systems, and 3D specs. Well, the 3D specs are the only reliable souvenir here, along with the remote prospect of a deflated Cruise and an acid Girl Friday. It’s the kind of pairing that Howard Hawks did years ago in I Was a Male War Bride and which Preston Sturges offered in The Lady Eve.
As for Emily Blunt: I hope she got a ton of money for this schlock and I trust she will tell her children how once upon a time she had an edge on wit, talk and being grown-up that made Meryl Streep bow in respect during The Devil Wears Prada (and Streep knows, because comedy was never her thing). Edge of Tomorrow is lavish, ear-splitting junk, but it might have been a tender sneer at America, its foreign policy rhetoric, and its helplessly high opinion of itself. So we are left in our crumbling empire, caught between “Mission accomplished” and Mission Impossible.