The science fiction, military-themed actioner “Edge of Tomorrow” could almost have been called “Grunt-hog Day,” so reminiscent is the premise of a certain Billy Murray movie. Well, if “Groundhog Day” had marauding aliens and lots of explosions. That being said, this is a remarkably smart, surprising movie that satisfyingly delivers the goods at least as well as any other studio tent pole this summer.
Set in England in the near future, the world is at war with invading aliens, and there is a distinctly World War II vibe as Tom Cruise, as craven public relations officer William Cage, arrives to meet an English general (Brendan Gleeson) who inexplicably wants him at the front during the big invasion of France.
Why the general has it in for Cage so badly is never made clear. It is not a spoiler to disclose, however, that Cage, who has no combat training whatsoever, dies not long after hitting the beach. No sooner has he breathed his last though, than he wakes up back at the base starting the same day over again.
As he goes through the same day again and again, he gets better at fighting and surviving, but still inevitably dies, with no clue as to how this is happening or why. Enter Emily Blunt as Rita, a highly decorated combat veteran who recognizes that Cage is repeating a fateful day over and over, and helps train him for combat. Initially Cruise cannily evokes James Garner in “The Americanization of Emily,” but that gradually gives way to the sort of professional fighting man Cruise has portrayed for years from “Top Gun” to the “Mission: Impossible” movies. One of Hollywood’s more underrated leading men, Cruise handles the spectrum deftly without missing a beat. Ms. Blunt, not known for action roles, is thoroughly believable as a seasoned warrior who is completely comfortable with killing. The on-screen chemistry between the two is palpable.
The supporting cast is excellent throughout, particularly the suddenly omnipresent Bill Paxton who does an outside-the-box take on an otherwise familiar platoon sergeant.
Director Doug Liman had respectable hits with “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” misfires with “Jumper” and “Fair Game.” He’s absolutely at the top of his game here, with his most assured directorial outing to date. As did the late Harold Ramis with “Groundhog Day,” Liman astutely gauges how far he needs to rewind with each successive day, keeping the pacing brisk while simultaneously ensuring that the trippy premise remains comprehensible. His trademark style, shooting an über-budget, studio tent pole like an indie, works extremely well here, partly because his untethered, kinetic camera helps disguise the occasionally Playstationy CGI flames. It should be noted that most of the special effects are very convincing, and add substantially to the verisimilitude.
There is a Paul Verhoeven-esque quality to the movie’s opening, with future news clips being used to provide fast exposition, much in the vein of “Robocop” or “Starship Troopers.” Missing is the occasionally plastic Verhoeven gloss, in favor of a pitted, grease-stained metallic surface, like a war surplus Jeep. The nearly non-stop combat action is influenced by a variety of war movies that have come before it, from “Sands of Iwo Jima” to “Saving Private Ryan.” The action compares favorably to other recent high-concept movies, but what sets “Edge of Tomorrow” apart is the smart, savvy script by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (“Fair Game”). Fast-paced and surprising, this is a story that sucks you in and doesn’t spit you out until the end credits.
Why they picked a title that sounds like a daytime soap is a mystery. “Edge of Tomorrow” is based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel “All You Need is Kill,” a much more gripping title, and even the blurb, “Live, Die, Repeat,” might have been better.