Popcorn Movies With Brains

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Frank Masi / 20th Century Fox-Regency Enterprises

Every summer, the question grows more pertinent: what’s so special about special effects? The more potent that Hollywood’s CGI tools get, the less exciting and surprising they seem. This is the reason—well, one of the reasons—why Avatar proved so boring. After years of Pixar and Spielberg and ill-conceived (but visually stupendous) Star Wars prequels, James Cameron’s 3-D didn’t add much punch. But since Americans have a constitutional right to be dazzled in new ways, every Memorial Day kicks off a fresh season of shock and awe just the same.

Now that CGI-fueled special effects, in halfway-competent hands, can’t help but be awesome, the movies that stand out do so for decidedly old-fashioned reasons: because a director preserves some comedy or drama in spite of the pyrotechnics. Convention demanded that The Dark Knight include baroque fight scenes and all sorts of Bat gadgets, but the film gnaws at my memory because of Heath Ledger’s creepy performance and some harrowing writing. Maybe Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to that film, the Leonardo DiCaprio thriller Inception, will manage the same trick when it arrives in July. But already this summer, a trio of big-budget action movies has worked some changes on the blockbuster formula, adding new genre touches, fancy acting, and stylish writing, respectively. Or at least they’ve tried.

From Tom Cruise—Mr. “I Want the Truth!,” Mr. Bound Around on Oprah’s Couch—you expect overcaffeination. The charm of Knight and Day lies in the way director James Mangold subverts that expectation. “That’s a beautiful dress, by the way,” the smiling Cruise says to Cameron Diaz, who is wearing a lemon-yellow bridesmaid’s dress while driving a car at high speed the wrong way on the interstate as he clings to the hood. Later, the motor-cycle they’re riding down a narrow street in a Spanish town comes nose-to-nose with a stampede of bulls. “Bulls,” Cruise says nonchalantly.

The underplaying, the guy-gal adventures: like a million movies before it, this one carries genetic traces of The Thin Man pictures. But Nick and Nora had it easy: the only special effect they had to execute was not spilling the gin. Against the heavy demands of the modern summer blockbuster—the pace, the volume—screwball flourishes can’t make much headway. The spooky-funny intensity that Cruise shows in the early scenes gives way to square-jawed Mission: Impossible blandness. Diaz, who can be bubbly and funny as a tequila-drinking vintage-car restorer, doesn’t get enough chances to be either once the plot gets up to speed. (That plot, not that it matters, involves Cruise rescuing a never-ending power source from assorted bad guys, both foreign and domestic: “Vair iz zee battery?” says one of the former.)

Cruise’s fight scenes have already dropped out of my memory. (They’re good, but, you know, we’ve seen them.) However, I’ll not soon forget the scene in which the sedated Diaz catches blurry glimpses of Cruise leading her through a series of daredevil escapes. It’s a quick, charming throwaway, totally in keeping with the blithe tone of the early scenes. I mean it as a compliment to say that it feels like those inexplicably winning beer ads featuring the Most Interesting Man in the World—or, if you give Mangold credit for being really subversive, a welcome sendup of a set-piece-heavy summer action movie.

A more dependable way to pump new blood into the summer blockbuster is through new faces. Two years ago, The Incredible Hulk thought it had found a bankable leading man in Edward Norton. It didn’t end well for him—or for Jake Gyllenhaal, just a few weeks ago. But Iron Man turned to Robert Downey Jr., with delightful results. His insouciance—his knack for making you care while seeming not to give a damn—is perfectly calibrated for a form of movie that tends to be at once self-important and utterly ridiculous.

In this summer’s sequel, Iron Man 2, Downey takes unwinking self-consciousness to heights where he can be visited only by Bill Murray. “It’s not about me,” he says early in the film. Of course it’s about him. He’s so lavishly gifted that when playboy superhero Tony Stark confronts his mortality—wrestling with the knowledge that the device in his chest that keeps him alive is actually killing him—the movie once or twice made me feel things. But the sequel doesn’t give Downey anything like the original film’s room to play. Director Jon Favreau’s eagerness to serve up the concussive fights and bountiful explosions that are expected of a blockbuster leaches Downey’s human-scale charm right out of the movie.

No film this summer has faced weightier expectations than Robin Hood. Because it’s a Russell Crowe Adventure Epic, we are treated to vast battles and a great clubbing of Frenchmen with a giant hammer. But the producers didn’t neglect the script: they reportedly entrusted a last-minute polish of the dialogue to Tom Stoppard.

Knowing that the writer behind such brainy, funny plays as Arcadia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead might have penned this or that line brings a cerebral little thrill to blockbuster season: Spot the Stoppard. Flecks of wordplay between Crowe and Cate Blanchett sound like him, as does the flustered Little John’s attempt to explain away his nickname (“I’m proportionate!”). Later, an octogenarian (played by Max von Sydow) announces that he has woken with “a tumescent glow,” a phrase not heretofore part of the popcorn-movie lexicon.

Yet pretty words prove no match for the other demand of summer movie audiences: brute scale. To justify the ticket price, Robin can’t just save Nottingham and get the girl—he has to decide the fate of nations. By the time he’s redeemed all of England, after nearly three wearying hours of screen time, the film has sunk into the blockbuster mire. Instead of Iron Man’s genre-defying wit or the Joker’s haunting charisma, we get yet another pyrotechnic blast, yet another cavalry charge, yet another climactic fight. And what’s less special than that?

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