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In 1986, peaceniks were mad at Tom Cruise. That year, the Navy thanked Top Gun for boosting enlistment with another 20,000 recruits. Since then, Cruise has made more critiques of the military than advertisements for it, most of which (Lions for Lambs, Born on the Fourth of July, The Last Samurai, Valkyrie) 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 adman 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 re-live 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 Looney Tunes. 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 eighty-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.
Cruise hasn't physically aged out of action roles, and 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 the 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?
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 also those troops in our own universe who know real life doesn't have a reboot.
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