Not because the movie is great, though it is.
Not because the director the same amazing man behind THE BOURNE IDENTITY. And not because Emily Blunt and the other supporting actors nailed it.
I almost didn’t see this film because of my antipathy for Tom Cruise, and yeah, I’d lost respect for him the last few years. But this bit of cinema goes a long way toward rehabbing Cruise as a blockbuster star, though not for the reasons you’d expect.
Warning: spoilers. Also, I refer to action heroes as “he” for simplicity, and yes, Ronda Rousey and other female action stars are amazing.
5) Reversal of tough-guy expectations
Most action stars have an actual background in Being a Tough Guy.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was the king of bodybuilding. The rest of the cast of THE EXPENDABLES 12: ANARCHY AT THE AARP MEETING is full of martial arts maniacs, pro wrestling hulks and mixed-martial arts studs.
The fact that Tom Cruise is short in real life isn’t an impediment here. Jackie Chan, Jean Claude Van Damme and Jet Li could all fit in the back seat of a Yugo.
Doesn’t matter. They look big and tough on screen.
The difference? While he did all his own stunts in this movie, just like the toughest Tinseltown tough guys, Tom the Cruise can actually act. Shockingly, acting ability tends to matter on the big screen.
4) Humor that’s deeper than one-liners and puns
Another staple of action movies is a bit of comic relief to balance out all the explosions.
Bond is notorious for bad puns, like “She always did like a good squeeze” after Remington Steele dispatched Onatopp, who later fell in love with Wolverine.
Schwarzenegger is famous for his one-liners, too. I’ll say the phrase and you’ll know the movie:
“I’ll be back.”
“Consider that a divorce.”
For action stars, that’s about all the humor than can typically muster, unless their name is Jackie Chan or Jason Statham and they know how to make a fight itself funny.
The humor in action movies is almost always about other characters. The hero is a straight man.
EDGE OF TOMORROW has humor throughout, and it’s far more sophisticated and varied than puns, one-liners and physical gags.
That takes actual acting chops, which Tom has. He uses them, often to get laughs at the expense of his own character. It’s different and refreshing.
3) Acting range
ROADHOUSE is a cult classic that turned Patrick Swayze into a believable action hero, if only for one movie, despite the insane chasm between dirty dancing with Jennifer Gray and bar fights alongside Sam Elliot.
But the range of most of these stars goes like this: brooding while looking off into the distance, brooding while ignoring the love interest, brooding while training, brooding while handling weapons and gear and, finally, grimacing in pain while being tortured by the bad guy before he escapes, throws the villain down a bottomless pit and broods while walking off into the distance.
Not a lot of range there. It’s like the famous internet chart, the Many Moods of Batman.
Tom has plenty of range, which he uses to connects with his co-stars — and connect with the audience in a variety of ways. Other action heroes typically focus on a variety of ways of dispatching bad guys.
2) Improving on the graphic novel
The movie differs from the original graphic novel, and this time, that’s a good thing.
In the novel, the alien Mimics reset the day with three separate ingredients: a Server alien, an Antennae and a Backup Antennae.
Bit complicated. And the novel has the Emily Blunt character turn on the hero at the end, because she figures out she’s the Backup Antennae and the day will keep resetting unless the hero kills her.
This is all too Connor McCloud vs. Duncan McCloud.
The movie simplifies things: there’s an Alpha alien that looks different than the others and has the power — along with the big, immobile Omega brain — to reset the day. If you kill the Alpha and get its blood splattered all over you, that power to reset the day gets transferred. The catch: you have to die, every day.
In the movie, Emily Blunt’s character doesn’t fight Tom Cruise and make him kill her. The climax does something great: it strips Cruise and Blunt of all their powers and gadgets.
Before, she and Cruise both had mech suits and Cruise had the power to reset the day. The climax takes those things away. Cruise only has one shot, one life, and they have to do it without the suits and guns. The stakes are much, much higher.
1) Go ahead and hate him in Act 1
A huge weakness of most action movies is there’s no character arc, no growth.
The hero is a smooth, handsome killer in Act 1. He breaks necks (and hearts) in Act 2 as a warmup, then mows down an army of bad guys in Act 3.
The hero doesn’t really change: he’s awesome the first time you see him, the most skilled and deadly killer around, and it takes an army of bad guys to even match up with him.
In this film, Cruise’s character starts out as a jerk and a coward. Not a little jerk. A big one. And not simply a coward, but a soldier who tries everything to avoid going to the front lines.
So if you started out disliking Cruise, as I did, his character isn’t trying to change your mind. At all. He isn’t saving the cat (Blake Snyder!) in the first scene. The script embraces your ambivalence or dislike of Cruise, and the movie works better if you don’t have a TOP GUN poster in your bedroom and all of his movies on BluRay.
Because the more you dislike or hate Cruise in Act 1, the bigger the journey will be by Act 3 — and real momentum comes not via intensity, but from the emotional distance traveled. If you love a character in Act 1 and love him in Act 3, there’s no journey.
The script doesn’t flip a magical switch, either, and say, “Okay, now you’re supposed to love the guy from here on out.”
Cruise’s character evolves, slowly, and not always in a linear way. There’s a great scene where he gives up. Instead of fighting the same battle on that beach for the 159th time, he steals a motorcycle, goes to London and has a giant pint of beer. This isn’t a throwaway scene. The director, and screenwriter, are surprising us by letting the character make different choices. The hero isn’t your typical action hero robot, plowing ahead to save the day no matter what. He’s human and flawed.
In the end, Cruise’s hero sacrifices himself to protect others. There was a lot of resistance, internally, to him making those choices. His character didn’t always do the heroic thing.
So there’s more to saying this movie is like GROUNDHOG DAY crossed with INDEPENDENCE DAY, and yes, I bet somebody on YouTube already posted a mashup called GROUNDHOG INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Bill Murray’s character in GROUNDHOG DAY also starts out as a selfish jerk. There’s no single moment that turns him into a nice guy. He does bad things and makes all kinds of bad choices. Only in the end does he figure out that becoming a better person takes more than charm and wit. It takes sacrifice and selflessness to get him there.
EDGE OF TOMORROW might have worked with another, unblemished actor. Matt Damon is talented and worked with this director before, and he put on a similar mech suit in Elysium, so I bet he could strap it on just fine. But the movie wouldn’t be as good.
Let’s give props to Tom Cruise: just as Robert Downey, Jr.’s past troubles helped make him the perfect choice for Tony Stark, Cruise’s long rise and fall from grace helped make him the perfect person for this movie. He nailed it in a way that a lesser known – and better liked — actor simply couldn’t.