In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise tackles the sort of character we rarely see him portray: A clueless wimp. He’s surprisingly good at it, too. In the future, as mankind is fighting off an alien invasion that has taken down most of the eastern hemisphere, Cruise plays William Cage, a U.S. Army Major whose primary job is to go on TV, put a positive spin on bad news with that million-watt smile, issue press releases on how well the effort is going and sit down for talk shows to assure the public that although the world is at stake, the government has our backs.
Then a general (Brendan Gleeson) tired of hearing him talk demotes Cage to private and ships him off to the front line — specifically Normandy Beach, the last foothold before the monsters take over for good and train their sights on North America. Cruise, used to playing cocky, know-it-all guys who rarely break a sweat, is amusing to watch, insisting there must have been some mistake as he’s outfitted in an exoskeleton loaded with weaponry, a powerful gun that he doesn’t know how to fire, and is dropped out of an airplane into the midst of the gigantic battle, where he is killed almost instantly. That sounds horrible, but it’s actually funny, because Doug Liman directs each of those deaths with the speed and surprise of a Road Runner cartoon, with Cruise as the Coyote. And it’s rare to see the actor take on a character who is this far out of his element (he usually plays experts). When was the last time you heard a befuddled Cruise ask “How do you fire this thing?”
Then the story’s hook, which is based on a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, kicks in. A moment after his death, Cage wakes up exactly at the same military base on the same morning when he was dropped off. No one seems to recognize him or know that he was just there. Instead, everything repeats itself, a la Groundhog Day, and soon he’s back on the battlefield, still fiddling with his gun’s sticky safety switch. He gets killed again. Repeat.
The first half of Edge of Tomorrow, which has some ferocious action and aliens that bear a distracting resemblance to the tentacled creatures in the Matrix trilogy, is clever and inventive as far as summer blockbusters go. Every day that Cruise goes back into battle, he already knows what’s going to happen, so he’s able to make a little progress each time. He’s helped by the unstoppable Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier so tough she doesn’t even wear a helmet, who decides to help the poor schlub with his training.
But then the movie starts getting into trouble. In the hilarious Groundhog Day, all Bill Murray wanted to do was to win the girl. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise must save the world, which requires him to become Top Gun-era Tom Cruise again, pull off an impossible mission and retrieve a blue orb from the bottom of the now-submerged Louvre. That scene unfortunately conjures flashbacks to The Da Vinci Code, something every film should try to avoid whenever possible.
After such a promising start, Edge of Tomorrow reverts to the usual formula of huge special effects and a race toward a specific target that must be destroyed in order to kill all the aliens at once (why do invading extra-terrestrials always bring with them the single thing that can wipe them out? Couldn’t they have hid it on Jupiter or something?) The structure of Edge of Tomorrow is curiously similar to Oblivion, whose first near-plotless hour was intriguing, and then came the bad guys and ruined everything. I’ll bet you can barely remember that one, and a year from now, Edge of Tomorrow will sound like the title of a new series on Lifetime.
You have to give it up for Cruise, though. Here’s a superstar who takes every project with the same level of intensity, even a big entertainment such as this one. He tears through large action setpieces with a believable ferocity, sells you on them even when the CGI is a little shaky, and his enthusiasm wins you over. Edge of Tomorrow isn’t good, but it’s also forgivable. Just please stop the Top Gun 2 rumors, Tom. Please.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton, John Armstrong, Tony Way.
Director: Doug Liman.
Screenwriters: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth. Based on the novel “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 113 minutes. Vulgar language, war violence, gore. Opens Friday June 6 at: area theaters.