Knight and Day

Directed by James Mangold
Written by Patrick O’Neill
Starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis.


James Mangold’s new globe-trotting adventure/romance Knight and Day offers an interesting twist on The Bechdel Test, a three-step method of evaluating movies that often reveals just how sorely under-represented women are onscreen, particularly in big-budget Hollywood productions.  For those unfamiliar with the test, which takes its name from a 1985 comic strip by Alice Bechdel, the three steps a movie has to meet in order to pass are:

1) It has to have at least two women in it
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something besides a man

This sounds like a fairly straightforward and even easy test, but you’d be surprised just how many films fail to meet all three requirements.  So far this summer, the only movie to pass with flying colors was Sex and the City 2.  Meanwhile, Robin Hood, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Get Him to the Greek, The A-Team and Jonah Hex couldn’t even pass the first step, while Iron Man 2 and Toy Story 3 just squeaked by the third.  (A website has been set up that grades movies on their Bechdel score—the curious can visit to join the conversation.)  Knight and Day also passes Bechdel—just barely—courtesy of two ultra-brief, non-man related conversations that the film’s female lead Cameron Diaz has with supporting actresses Viola Davis and Celia Weston.  (Well, to be fair, the scene with Weston indirectly references a man, but the point of their conversation isn’t about him specifically.  And that’s all I’ll say as that scene also reveals an important plot point.)

But here’s the wrinkle on the test that Knight and Day introduces: even though Diaz spends the bulk of the film’s 110-minute runtime hanging out with leading man Tom Cruise—he’s a secret agent man and she’s the innocent bystander who is forced to accompany him on his latest adventure—the narrative unfolds almost entirely from her perspective.  We quite literally watch the action through her eyes, as many of the film’s bigger set-pieces are shot largely from her perspective.  Early on, for example, there’s a big chase where Diaz is steering an out-of-control car down a freeway and hears the noise of a motorcycle overhead.  Through her front windshield, we see a chopper fall into a reservoir of water next to the highway and then hear a loud thump above her as the rider (that would be Cruise) lands on the car roof.

Later, in a very funny gag, Cruise slips Diaz a drug just before they’re about to be captured by the bad guys that knocks her out for 18 hours.  As she loses consciousness, the screen fades to black, but then she briefly re-awakens to find herself tied up in a chair in an interrogation cell with Cruise beside her chained upside down.  She fades out and when her eyes flutter open again, she’s aboard a helicopter with Cruise who is in the midst of a giant aerial battle.  Fade out on the helicopter and fade in on a motorboat piloted by Cruise through choppy Caribbean waters.  (Mangold’s creative approach to shooting the film’s many action sequences reminds you of the major thing missing from most blockbuster set-pieces today: a strong point-of-view.  Any hack can arm the cast with guns, set off a bunch of explosions and just shoot the resulting carnage.  It takes someone like Mangold or James Cameron or Kathryn Bigelow to actually “direct” the action so that the characters—and the audience!—can follow what’s going on.)

But Diaz’s role extends beyond functioning as the audiences’ eyes and ears in the action sequences.  She’s also the one who pieces together the mystery at the heart of the story and ultimately aids Cruise in his impossible mission.  Going by the official Bechdel rules, Knight and Day doesn’t score terribly high, but couldn’t its first-person female perspective be considered extra credit?

But enough about its Bechdel score for a moment—how does Knight and Day rate as an actual movie?  Quite well overall, although it’s not on the same level as the films it obviously seeks to imitate, movies like Romancing the Stone, Charade and Richard Lester’s two Musketeers adventures.  The major thing missing from Mangold’s romantic romp is…well, romance.  Although Diaz and Cruise share a nice, natural comic chemistry as this mismatched couple, the vibe of their relationship feels more like “best friends” than “lovers.”  The pacing also flags at times as Mangold struggles to keep up with screenwriter Patrick O’Neill’s complex plot machinations.  Actually, complex isn’t the right word since the film’s overarching narrative is fairly straightforward, there’s just a lot of incident to keep track of.

Here’s the gist of it: CIA operative Cruise is in possession of a powerful battery called the Zephyr (or, as it should really be known, the MacGuffin) that a bunch of people—including a crooked agent and a European crime lord—desperately want and they’re chasing him all over the globe to recover it.  Diaz only gets mixed up in this mess because she makes the mistake of getting onboard the same plane as Cruise and is instantly targeted by the same folks pursuing him.  Rather than leave her at the mercy of the CIA and a host of Euro-baddies, Cruise conspires to stick by her side as a kind of protector.  Basically, imagine a James Bond story told from the perspective of a Bond Girl (one of the more resourceful, funny ones) and you’ve got the general idea for Knight and Day.

Besides Cruise and Diaz—who are more relaxed and playful here than they’ve been in a long while, even if they fail to strike many romantic sparks—the film’s best assets are its jaunty tone, beautiful international settings (the bulk of which were thankfully filmed on location) and Magold’s nimble direction of the action sequences, which are only occasionally marred by some sub-par digital enhancements.  (For instance, it’s obvious that the bulls pursuing Diaz and Cruise through the winding streets of Seville in the film’s climactic set-piece have been born and bred inside a computer.)  Overall, Knight and Day succeeds in its modest aspiration to provide light, fun summer entertainment for the masses.  It doesn’t linger long in the memory, but it provides a pleasant enough buzz while you’re in the theater.

Knight and Day opens in theaters on Wednesday.