In 1986, peaceniks were mad at Tom Cruise. That year, the Navy thanked Top Gun for boosting enlistment another 20,000 recruits. Since then, he’s made more critiques of military than advertisements, most of which (Lions for Lambs, Born on the Fourth of July, The Last Samurai, Valkyrie) j’accuse bad leadership of wasting the lives of a few — or a million — good men.
With Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise comes full circle. He plays Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cage, a medaled propagandist who goes knock-kneed at the sight of a paper cut. In peacetime, he was an ad man who had dabbled in ROTC. Now that Earth is under siege from the Mimics, whirling space monsters that look like dreadlocked wigs dipped in steel, he’s been drafted to serve as a slick talking head who goes on Fox News to urge the poor and dumb dregs to sign up and be slap-chopped to shreds. As he cops to his commanding officer (Brendan Gleeson), “I do this to avoid doing that.”
Cruise’s Cage has zero intention of joining the fight. But Gleeson’s exasperated general conks him out and ships him to the front, where Cage wakes up on a pile of luggage and discovers he’s been demoted to private and will be off to battle the next day. If you’re expecting a hero, which you are, as this is Tom Cruise, you’ve met the wrong guy. Cage dies immediately. But then he snaps awake back on those bags and realizes he’s going to relive and re-die the last 24 hours until he either wins the war or goes utterly mad from the Promethean torture.
Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), Edge of Tomorrow is a classic war movie crossbred with a Looney Tune. Like the world wars of the last century, the enemy is embedded in Europe and spreading across the globe, with humanity’s hopes pinned on reclaiming the coast of France, a fight that Liman stages with the chaotic carnage of Saving Private Ryan. However, instead of olive drabs, the soldiers are decked out in 80-pound exoskeletons that force them to walk with the heavy, high-stepping lurch of drunks in raver boots. It’s a novel mash-up, a gray-toned, serious war picture with all these overdressed goofballs stomping around. Underneath his metal chaps, one soldier cheekily refuses to wear pants.
To work, Edge of Tomorrow must both make light of death, lest the audience be ground into despair, and rally us to care whether Cage lives. Liman walks this tricky tightrope: We chuckle when fellow soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt, whose biceps look bigger than Cruise’s) shoots Cage like a fallen racehorse so the day can restart, but every time he jolts back to life we feel for his gulping, startled agony. The Wile E. Coyote fatalities are fun, but it’s that repetitive moment of horror that holds this bipolar stunt together: Cruise, bug-eyed and gasping for breath as he shakes off his fear and grimly prepares for the next suicide mission.
The middle of the film is an exhausting montage of murder, the bracing opposite of all those movies whose heroes race through bullets as if they were as harmless as raindrops. The script works better when it slows down and the screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) toy with our definition of suspense. As Cruise and Blunt make a daring dash for help, our hearts race. Will they outrun the Mimics, find a working helicopter, dodge that plummeting plane? Slowly, it sneaks up on us that Cage himself isn’t scared: He’s lived and died through this before, and is just working through every doomed option like a kid dutifully reading each page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Practice has made him perfect, at least up until a point, allowing Liman to rework the bedlam of the opening battle until it resembles a beautiful, deadly dance.
Cruise hasn’t physically aged out of action roles (whether he’s matured out is another question). Now 51, the new bags under his eyes make his character’s boyish hucksterism seem even more desperate. Despite the gizmo suit, we’re always aware that he’s a man, not a machine. Edge of Tomorrow carries itself like a groundbreaking blockbuster, but at its core, it’s simply asking the same question that Spock raised in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Do the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few? While Cruise has the ability to save the individuals in his platoon from their fates, is it moral to let them die if it means he can end the war? With godlike pressures like these, it’s no wonder he looks like he hasn’t slept.
Edge of Tomorrow is the rare summer shoot-’em-up that understands the fragility of life. More hopeless than heroic, it’s not going to boost military enlistment rates. But Cruise’s perpetual sacrifice makes us want to salute this soldier who bravely, and often blindly, flings his body in harm’s way — and especially those troops in our own universe who know real life doesn’t have a reboot.