The Brainy Blockbuster

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeremy McCarter

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. …