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James Mangold wrestles 'Knight and Day' to the screen

The film had multiple writers, stars and even a different director before the 46-year-old took the reins.

June 24, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • MANY GENRES: James Mangold's credits include the remake of "3:10 to Yuma," with Ben Foster, left, and Russell Crowe.
MANY GENRES: James Mangold's credits include the remake of "3:10… (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

Call it the wildest cross-genre experiment in the history of summer movies .

The new Tom Cruise- Cameron Diaz film — perhaps the world's first screwball- comedy, action-romance, Hitchcock-homage, family- drama paranoid- thriller — went through so many script versions that even the writers who worked on earlier drafts may not recognize much about the final film. It has changed names (it was originally titled "Wichita," then "Trouble Man," then "Knight and Day"), stars ( Eva Mendes and Chris Tucker were supposed to play the leads before Cruise and Diaz signed on) and directors ("Shanghai Noon" director Tom Dey before James Mangold took over the reins).

Hollywood development is typically a complicated equation. This looked like Fermat's Last Theorem.

It's perhaps fortunate, then, that the man with the task of keeping a handle on it all — and steering a $107-million picture — is known for his versatility. In his 13 years as a professional director, Mangold has made a crime drama ("Cop Land"), a time-travel romance ("Kate & Leopold"), a psychological thriller ("Identity"), a Western remake (3:10 to Yuma") and a country-music biopic ("Walk the Line"), although one might assume that the credential that came in most handy in the face of such crazy filmmaking was a mental-health drama ("Girl, Interrupted").

"It was a careful balance," Mangold says, sitting in his Santa Monica office on a recent Friday afternoon. "We'd go too far out there, then we'd have to pull back and go straight. Then we'd turn again."

The result of these maneuvers is, not surprisingly, a movie of cluttered, if noble, ambition, a film which has polarized critics and will likely do the same to audiences as it plays throughout the weekend. Some have called it a meandering jumble — "busy when it should be fizzy," is how the trade paper Variety put it — while others, including The Times' Kenneth Turan, were deeply enamored of it, calling it "the most entertaining made-for-adult studio movie of the summer."

But for Mangold, an upstate New York native who sharpened his skills at Columbia University's film program, "Knight and Day" was a moment of liberation after years of coloring inside the lines.

To describe all that is going on in "Knight and Day" is to take up the entirety of this article, but boiled to its essence, the film tells the story of a slightly unhinged daredevil assassin named Roy (Cruise) who meets the unsuspecting June (Diaz) at an airport and uses her as a mule to sneak a precious item through security. The two then spend much of the movie on the run throughout the U.S. and Europe as various agents come after them, often under hails of gunfire (and, in one moment, a "North by Northwest"-esque airplane chase scene). June, the sheltered naïf, alternates between trust and skepticism of Roy's purported good-guy status, as their relationship, Roy's over-the-top persona and the identities of those chasing them take frequent turns.

Nearly a dozen writers worked on the film — so many that the Writers Guild decided that no single contributor made enough of an impact, resulting in the group giving credit to one person, Patrick O'Neill, who worked up the original structure. In addition to veteran Scott Frank ("Minority Report," "Out of Sight") — who worked on the script, then came back to polish the work of other scribes who had come on to polish his work — the uncredited writers include, in no particular order: "Shutter Island's" Laeta Kalogridis, "Ocean's Eleven's" Ted Griffin, " " What Happens in Vegas' " Dana Fox, and "X-Men: The Last Stand's" Simon Kinberg. As they wrote, big moments came and went (the early scene in which Cruise and Diaz run into each other at an airport, to take one example, was originally supposed to be an Internet date).

But the primary reason the movie feels so overstuffed, as well as tonally diverse, is Mangold himself, who since the moment he was attached to direct the film in early 2009 wanted to experiment with spontaneous creativity, a technique rarely applied to $100-million summer blockbuster films.

"What I didn't want was another film that felt so storyboarded so that it felt like a piece of machinery," he said. "I wanted to feel like we were finding the movie as we made it."

That happens even in the first few moments, as audiences may find themselves disoriented as to what kind of movie they're watching. Elements of deadpan comedy, full-blown action and even tender romance flare up, sometimes with a jolting unpredictability. Mangold says that this, too, was intentional. "You win or lose your audience in each of the first 15 minutes," he says. "As an audience member, that's when you've tasted each of these ice cream flavors," adds the director, who can't seem to resist a simile or metaphor.

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