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Cruise turns comic in 'Knight and Day'

Tom Cruise, as we all know, is a little nuts. And that's exactly what's best about his new action comedy, "Knight and Day." No, he doesn't jump on anyone's couch in the throes of romantic transport here. Nor does he slather morning talk show hosts with Scientological self-righteousness.

But have we ever been ready for him to be funny. In a performance of exquisite drollery, he does what may be the looniest thing of all, which is maintain perfect control and reassuring calm in the most insane circumstances.

It doesn't matter what's going on. He can be kidnapped, bound tight half-naked and swung upside down by his heels like a pendulum. And he'll still quietly reassure Cameron Diaz that everything's fine and he's got it all taken care of.

Is he beset by a couple handfuls of assassins on an otherwise empty airplane while Diaz is obliviously in the lavatory preparing for a hoped-for romantic encounter? He dispatches every marauder, including both pilots and all flight attendants, in a knockdown slugfest, shootout and martial arts mauling. If all that mayhem requires him to knock a bad guy or three against the lavatory door in a life or death frenzy, Diaz, inside, calls out a chipper "occupado."

Funny. So is the whole movie -- not fall out of your seat funny or even rollickingly funny, but merry and always wryly in character, so that all the outlandish things that happen to Cruise and Diaz -- riding a motorcycle through charging bulls in Seville or trying to land a plane on a Midwestern highway -- find our Tom maintaining the soft-voiced composure of an airline attendant with a long line of delayed passengers screaming epithets at him.

He's doing all this because he knows what's really going on -- and his own skills at handling it -- while a clueless Diaz is losing it so often that he periodically feels the need to drug her into oblivion so he can get on with the heavily armed business of saving their lives.

It is, in fact, a pretty funny and perverse running gag in the film: Every so often one of the principals is unconscious while being saved by the other, so the director can give us the point of view (POV in script talk) of the slowly awakening stuporous one discovering, say, that they've somehow been transported to an idyllic South Pacific island and are now wearing a bikini.

The master of ordinary folk trapped in nutso spy chases was, of course, Hitchcock in "The 39 Steps" and "North by Northwest." This is a new bullet-spewing, high-explosive ADHD escalation of all that played for laughs by a Cruise, who seems just this close to barking mad in every scene. If you're a bit dismayed by the cartoonish comedy of the mounting body count as they get on with the business of staying alive, I must say I'm with you.

But, as I said, that's still the good news.

Cruise is going to be 48 years old on July 3 and the time has long since passed when he could get away with boyishness. He always knew it would, so he smartly made sure he worked with some of the very best directors alive. If he never quite made the grade with Stanley Kubrick ("Eyes Wide Shut"), Spielberg ("Minority Report") and Oliver Stone ("Born on the Fourth of July"), he didn't humiliate himself, either. He did make the grade with Sydney Pollack ("The Firm") and Brian DePalma ("Mission Impossible") and did even better with Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire," Oscar-quality work even if he didn't win).

Pros in the movie and critic's trade always knew that Cruise, not Dustin Hoffman in his stunt, was the reason that "Rain Man" was as good as it was.

Now that boyishness isn't really working for him anymore, Cruise, bless him, has that nuttiness and humor still. He's having a great year. This movie can't help but entertain a lot of people, and his "MTV Movie Awards" appearance with Jennifer Lopez as the hirsute, foul-mouthed dancing fool Les Grossman was a comedy smash (see Les' origins in "Tropic Thunder").

As he knocks at 50's door, Tom now turns to us and says, "I'm really ready to be funny for a while." To which we might well say, godspeed Tommy boy, we're with you. It's about time.

Diaz is an inspired foil for all this, playing the sort of male fantasy woman who restores '66 GTOs and carries vintage car parts in her luggage. But then, she's always been awfully good in the comedy foil business (see "The Mask" with current Hollywood's Numero Uno lunatic, Jim Carrey).

"Knight and Day" is no-account piffle, sure, but as piffle goes, it's pure and pretty high grade.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

KNIGHT AND DAY

3 stars (out of 4)

Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in James Mangold's action comedy about a young woman who restores vintage muscle cars and her bullet-showered relationship with a governmental assassin.

Rated PG-13; now playing in area theaters.

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