By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 22, 2014 at 5:00PM
Masks have always fascinated Tom Cruise. There are masks in "Minority Report," "Eyes Wide Shut," and "Vanilla Sky," and they serve a key purpose in all four "Mission: Impossible" movies (movies, it just so happens, that Cruise also produces). In films like "Interview with the Vampire," "Valkyrie" and "Tropic Thunder," Cruise transforms himself physically with the help of advanced prosthetics, to the point that these augmented bits become a part of him; he is the mask. It's very apparent that Tom Cruise is obsessed with the idea of being anyone but Tom Cruise. This idea reaches its logical zenith in his latest movie, the brilliant sci-fi extravaganza "Edge of Tomorrow," in which Cruise plays a man who dies on the battlefield and is instantly reborn. Every day, Cruise could be someone else. The fact that he chooses to be himself is what's really impressive.
Tellingly, Cruise's character Major William Cage is introduced as a spin doctor, a military man in name only who, before Earth became engaged in combat with a bloodthirsty alien race, was a marketing executive. His main goal is to package the war and sell it to the citizenry, but when he runs afoul of a European commander (Brendan Gleeson), he's labeled a deserter and forced into combat even when, he readily admits, he can barely handle the trauma of a paper cut. Even before battle, he's been transformed. On his inaugural mission, which echoes the D-Day beach invasion, his squad is slaughtered and, while attempting to kill one of the monsters (a deadly swirl of teeth and tentacles conjured up by the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic), he ingests some of its blood. This gives him the nifty, "Groundhog Day"-like ability to "reset" the day every time he dies.
Once he foggily realizes what is happening to him, Cage seeks out Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a warrior who had some success during one of these battles and, for a spell, had similar abilities. She teaches him how to use his gift, and together they plot a way to end the invasion, once and for all.
It's hard to talk about "Edge of Tomorrow" without accidentally giving something away, so if you're squeamish about spoilers, feel free to turn back now (just be sure to return after you've seen the movie). Before you go, you should know that the movie is great. Like really, really great. It's snappy and funny and violent and weird and sets the bar impossibly high for the rest of this year's summer movie crop.
Based on a Japanese "light novel" called "All You Need Is Kill" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, "Edge of Tomorrow" uncannily brings together a bunch of different influences, from old school video games (reset!) to Japanese anime (the character wear hulking, robotic suits in battle) to the science fiction films of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (early scenes have a typically satirical vibe and the battle scenes feel very "Starship Troopers") while also feeling totally fresh and original. It's weird to think of a movie that had this much money put behind its marketing and distribution as a surprise, but it really is; a very welcome surprise.
Part of what makes the movie so thrilling is its formal experimentalism, gleefully exhibited inside the parameters of a $200 million studio film. The movie was directed by Doug Liman, who made independent fare like "Swingers" before earning his living as a craftsman behind some of Hollywood's biggest action films (like "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and "Jumper"), and in a way "Edge of Tomorrow" feels much closer in spirit to his tiny indie "Go" than something like "The Bourne Identity." It has the same freewheeling energy as "Go," as well as the emphasis on being unmoored from typical narrative convention. In "Edge of Tomorrow," the same events happen again and again, but Liman is able, somehow, to show us different things each time. It's like if "Rashomon" featured a bunch of men in robotic suits and giant scary monsters and Bill Paxton as a hard-nosed general (he's great, by the way).
What's even more impressive than Liman's novel approach to the execution of the narrative is that he's able to give Cruise's plight actual emotional weight, utilizing a minimal amount of dialogue. Interestingly enough this is accomplished mostly through the editing of the movie, as you watch Cruise start to understand Emily Blunt's character fully. She is first portrayed, both by her performance and the marketing surrounding her victory, as a fierce warrior. But as time goes on and Cruise continues to work with her through the restarting of the day, he notices that she has layers and, what's more, that he is starting to fall for her. She is a rich, beautifully realized female character, strong and smart and sensitive, which is already a welcome change from the summer movies we've seen thus far, where women are mostly seen falling from tall buildings and hiding from giant monsters. Blunt doesn't hide from monsters: she's sticks a really big fucking sword through them.
But the movie belongs, wholeheartedly, to Cruise. This is his liveliest, most fully engaged, dimensional performance in years, and considering the entire movie hinges on the audience identifying with his character as he goes through this patently unreal experience, that's a very good thing. Cruise starts off superficial and scared, a man unwilling to enter combat because of his lack of self-confidence and physical ability. By being able to replay the day, though, he becomes stronger, faster, and is able to anticipate what is going to happen next. He also starts to feel more. As an actor you sense Cruise letting go of some of the unnecessary artifice that has hindered recent performances like "Rock of Ages." He is letting go of the mask and becoming more human, and because of all this it's a performance that winds up being close to transcendent. Tom Cruise is back. Big time.
And it's weird to think of a $200 million sci-fi spectacle like "Edge of Tomorrow" flying below the radar, but with all the hype and hoopla about this summer's superhero movies and animated sequels, that's exactly what's happened. It shouldn't. "Edge of Tomorrow" is a witty, trippy, emotionally engaging, impressively strange movie, beautifully staged and photographed (by Dione Beebe). Most importantly though, is that "Edge of Tomorrow" is an outrageously fun thriller that sees the biggest actor of our age come back to vibrant life in a film that allows him to lose the mask and remind us all why he was a movie star in the first place. It's a razzle-dazzle triumph, and one we can't wait to experience again and again and again... [A-] – Drew Taylor.
On page 2, a totally different take on the movie by Gabe Toro