Lively "Edge Of Tomorrow" Loses Way In Clunky Third Act

Like most hit pop songs, sci-fi actioner “Edge Of Tomorrow” ingratiates itself through repetition, with a hook – “Groundhog Day”-esque time loop compacted into war movie tropes – that’s equal parts familiar and refreshing. Moreoever, the film – or at least its first half – is an ideal playground for its star’s talents, allowing Tom Cruise to accent his typically winning smile with shades of darkness. But just as the latest radio smash is prone to do, the film eventually stalls out, wearing out its welcome as it curiously eschews its own format. Gone are the playful riffs on Hollywood overkill, in its place the same kind of clichés it previously rebuked.

Based on “All You Need Is Kill,” a Japanese light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film sees Cruise star as US Army Major William Cage, a military man in name only with purely his best interests at heart. When he balks at being sent into combat, he’s unceremoniously tased, only to wake up on the runway at Heathrow airport. “On your feet, maggot” are the words that greet him, soon to be the Pavlovian cue to his daily reboot. It’s no “I Got You Babe” – the Sonny & Cher hit that was one of many masterstrokes in “Groundhog Day” – but it hardly matters as what follows is frequently captivating. We’re soon reliving the lead-up to a massive alien invasion over and over again, to surprising comedic and visceral effect.

Aided by a seemingly limitless number of lives, Cage gradually learns to navigate social life in a combat zone – Bill Paxton (“Apollo 13”) shows up as his wryly robotic commanding officer – along with the top-of-the-line suit technology afforded to his unit. These metallic exoskeletons are vital in combating “Mimics,” the spindly, ultra-violent extra-terrestrials that have overtaken Europe and threaten to leave London in ruins. Super soldiers aren’t made over night, except when they are, with Cage’s talent for respawning shaping him into the military’s best hope – unbeknownst to them – at rebuffing the alien assault.

His new found ability is explained as a melding with his first alien victim – Mimics harbor the ability to manipulate time – but the explanation quickly fades away into to the real thrust of the narrative. That being Cage’s distinct arc from cowardly deserter to real-life action hero, partnered up with one of the few soldiers to have shared his time-looping talent, Rita Vrtaski (Emily Blunt). The screenplay smartly uses the repetition for laughs, many coming at our hero’s physical expense, but also in the form of subtle verbal commentary on the film’s own brand of time travel.

This is where the pic treads new ground, frequently keeping us at arm’s length as to whether any particular moment has happened before. But it’s a technique that eventually backfires. By keeping us mostly in the dark, the film lacks any discernible heartbeat, serving up a half-baked love story as its only emotional throughline. Apart from Cage, none of the characters are remotely memorable. The ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson does all he can with 10 minutes of expository dialogue as the man who sends Cage into battle, while Bill Paxton is similarly thrown away once his character has served his purpose.

The rest of the supporting players are entirely useless to the story, playing like a scrap heap of action movie clichés, the screenplay grafting each onto a pre-determined action or narrative beat. Character actor Noah Taylor plays his usual mad scientist part with the appropriate amount of aplomb, but saddled with dialogue like “Their only weakness is… humanity,” there’s only so much he can do to prop up the increasingly shaky storytelling. When the script inevitably jettisons repetition for one final stand against the aliens, it slows to crawl before devolving into a dud of a finale – one that, for no reason in particular, takes place at the Louvre.

Still, this is arguably director Doug Liman’s (“The Bourne Identity”) finest work to date. He expertly accents the film’s massive action scenes with some cheekily clever editing, efficiently counteracting the film’s innate darkness with some much-needed levity. But coming on the heels of a frequently inventive run-up, the flat finale plays even flatter, flopping about like one of its creature’s severed tentacles. The pic’s least interesting element – the aliens’ backstory – is pushed to the forefront, and, to quote a Bill Paxton character from another alien movie, it’s “Game over, man!” What could have been a nimbly funny conclusion lands with a thud, belying much of what came before. If nothing else, our hero’s time-looping ability isn’t strong enough to erase the high points of his own film. We’ll always have its first two acts.

A perfect pop artifact it’s not, but “Edge Of Tomorrow” should satisfy most moviegoers. Cruise is at his best, the special effects are top-notch, and it’s frothy enough to conceal its own undercurrent of mindless action sludge for much of its running time. Too often do its flaws flirt with fatality, but there’s nary a more fitting problem for a film that hinges on the recurring death of its hero.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 6, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Doug Liman
Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Noah Taylor, Brendan Gleeson, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong, Franz Drameh, Masayoshi Haneda, Tony Way
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material)