In the karmic wheel of fortune that is our pop culture fame game, Tom Cruise has been on the downswing for some time now. There are signs he’s back on the ascent: Some favorable career overviews in the smarter corners of the Web, a grudging acknowledgment that he always was a better actor than credited (exhibits A: “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Rain Man,” “Magnolia”), the sense that he may in fact be the last old-school movie star standing. He has been keeping his mouth shut for a while, too, which helps.
There are still a lot of haters out there, though — it’s awfully easy, isn’t it? — and they may be cheered by the idea of “Edge of Tomorrow,” a movie in which Tom Cruise is killed hundreds of times, in baroque, tragic, comic, and ridiculous ways. That’s entertainment? Well, yes, and not just for the schadenfreude. The fact is that this is a pretty good summer-kablooie movie, and Cruise is better than pretty good in it.
He’s still playing a hero who saves the world, but this time with wit and agility and a becoming sense of himself. And, yes, a pair of giant machine guns strapped to his arms. Cruise will never be hip and he’s completely lacking in the irony necessary to function in modern pop culture — this is why he’s routinely mocked — but he knows no one does uncomplicated heroism better than him, and for once he’s having fun with it.
Directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) and adapted by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and the brothers Butterworth (Jez and John-Henry ) from a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, “Edge of Tomorrow” is a sci-fi battle movie with a time-travel hook: “Groundhog Day” meets “Independence Day,” which by my calendar means it should be called “April 19th.” Earth is under attack by big bugs from outer space — yes, again — and the climactic Us-vs.-Them battle is about to take place on the beaches of Normandy, as the humans’ United Defense Forces (led by General Brendan Gleeson, praise the lord and pass the ammunition) leads the invasion to reconquer Europe. Already there has been a second Battle of Verdun; “Edge of Tomorrow” seems to be rebooting Word Wars I and II in the bargain.
Among the troops piling onto the transport planes to cross the English Channel is Major William Cage (Cruise), coward. How can this be? Cage is the UDF’s media spokesman, the Army’s smarmy, smiling talking head on TV, and when the general decides to throw him onto the front lines for the hell of it, Cruise beautifully underplays a pretty-boy’s panic, as if the stud from “Cocktail” had just been told he has cancer. Dumped in with the grunts of J Squad by a deep-fried staff sergeant (Bill Paxton), the petrified Cage finds himself in a battle that ends terribly for the human race. Cage himself takes out a big blue alien and dies with a mouth full of its blood.
This is the magic wand the movie has been waiting for: Somehow the hero has absorbed the alien entity’s ability to reset time and thus wakes up the previous day with the sergeant once more in his face. As in “Groundhog Day” — or, more on point, as in 2011’s twisty, neglected “Source Code,” which put Jake Gyllenhaal through a similar wringer — the hero must now rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, until he gets the day right. “Right” in this scenario meaning: A) Team up with the super-soldier Rita Vrataski (a rippled, oiled, all-business Emily Blunt), B) find the Throbbing Alien Brain called the Omega, C) do something about it.
As in those previous movies, “Edge of Tomorrow” mines the metaphysics of the situation for fun and profit. Like a lab rat working its way back from dead ends — or like a video-game player exploring a kill-or-be-killed environment — Cage has to push into each new day/same day until he dies, then start again with what he now knows. At a certain juncture, Rita understands this man has met her several hundred times already and has worked out every permutation of getting them from point A to B and, inch by inch, closer to C. Around the same time, the audience realizes that Cage may be much further ahead in the plot than they are, which seems awfully unfair.
Wouldn’t he get bored or suicidal? Wouldn’t you? Because it’s an action movie, “Edge of Tomorrow” has no time for the slapstick Zen of “Groundhog Day,” and anyway, Cruise doesn’t do introspection. Still, there’s a cleverness to the repetitions and variations and a surprising amount of gallows humor. Liman dwells too long on the brutal training sequences in which the coward becomes a killing machine, and the script has so many balls to juggle that we get cheated out of necessary, possibly even enjoyable, dramatic set-ups. By the second half of the movie, Cage is able to win over other characters — Rita, the J Squad soldiers, the requisite dotty scientist (Noah Taylor) — by proving he already knows everything about them, but we never see the scenes where he learns that information. “Edge of Tomorrow” is too busy figuring out how to get us to its endgame, and, besides, has there ever been a movie where a Tom Cruise character just sat down and talked to somebody? Would that throw the planets out of alignment?
A few other gripes. For no real reason, “Edge of Tomorrow” has been shot in 3-D, with hokey stunts like tasers fired in our faces and characters staring goggle-eyed at the camera, as if this were 1952 and we were watching “Bwana Devil” through paper glasses. The technology also mutes the color palette, so that the entire film appears to have been shot through a layer of mung. And Blunt’s kick-ass “angel of Verdun” resists going gooey on Cage for so long that you pray in vain for these two to make it to the end unclinched.
But the movie works for the most part and especially in the final parts, as the pace turns relentless and a last-minute twist throws the whole time-loop business out the window for added suspense. Maybe “Edge of Tomorrow” won’t save the world or even the summer, but I’ll settle for it saving June, and Cruise would probably be happy just to have it survive its opening weekend. His last action blockbuster was last year’s “Oblivion,” and I don’t know anyone who even remembers what that was about. This one deserves to stick around a little longer. Rinse, Tom. Repeat.