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Tom Cruise turns 'Groundhog Day' into sci-fi action fun

Friday - 6/6/2014, 9:18am  ET

Edge of Tomorrow (AP)
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tom Cruise in a scene from "Edge of Tomorrow." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, David James)
WASHINGTON -- "What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today."

Let's face it, ladies and gents, "Groundhog Day" is a perfect movie.

Rarely does a film come along with a premise so original, executed with such mastery of tone by Harold Ramis, a central role so tailor-made for Bill Murray, a love interest as vibrant as Andie MacDowell, a setting so unusual as wintry Punxsutawney, a song loop so earwormy as "I've Got You Babe" and an existential message so life-affirming that we forget it's a romantic comedy fantasy.

Every other movie with a similar "start the day over" premise should rightfully be compared to this, just as every shark movie should be compared to "Jaws," and they will almost inevitably fall short.

"Edge of Tomorrow" may not live up to "Groundhog Day," but to its credit, it never once feels stale. It may have been marketed in typical Hollywood fashion -- humans in metal suits fighting aliens with a trailer slogan "Live, Die, Repeat" -- but the film itself delivers something surprisingly edgy.

Video Review:

It's set in the near future, opening with a series of cable-news reports of a massive alien invasion by relentless extraterrestrials known as Mimics. The human race is fighting back with a giant mission on the beaches of France, fitting for the film's release on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. It's here that military deserter Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is dropped onto the front lines, wearing a giant metal combat suit similar to Ellen Ripley's in "Aliens" (1986).

The human forces are slaughtered, including Cage, who is killed at the same time as a Mimic, which splatters all over him. To Cage's surprise, he wakes up back at the military base before the mission, looking up at a poster of the mythical "Angel of Verdun" reading "Full Metal B*tch." Her name is Rita (Emily Blunt) and her boots weren't just made for walkin'; they were made for kicking alien tail.

Rita tells Cage that he has the ability to start the day over each time he dies, a power possessed by the Mimics and transferred to him during their simultaneous death-splatter. She trains him to fight the Mimics, learning from his repeat deaths to become mankind's only hope at avoiding extinction.

If all that sounds complicated, that's because it is. The high-concept premise asks us to suspend so much disbelief and take in so much exposition that the whole exercise could have easily collapsed on itself in other, less capable hands. Instead, these filmmakers diligently pay off each setup, humbly asking us to go along for the ride with a quote by Cruise: "I'm gonna tell you a story. At first, it's going to sound ridiculous. But the longer I talk, the more rational it's going to appear."

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for "The Usual Suspects" (1995), gets the writing credit, along with brothers Jez & John-Henry Butterworth, who wrote the Valerie Plame biopic "Fair Game" (2010). But the project began as Dante Harper's adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 Japanese novel "All You Need Is Kill," which joined "Argo" (2012) and "American Hustle" (2013) on the Hollywood Blacklist of best unproduced screenplays in 2010. Subsequent rewrites allowed the writers to hone this story, like Cruise learning from his deaths to hone his alien-fighting skills. One misstep here and you're dead. Every move must be thought out.

Overseeing the entire exercise is director Doug Liman, who has shown an ability to direct comedy -- helming Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in "Swingers" (1996) -- and action -- directing "The Bourne Identity" (2002) before the franchise was taken over by Paul Greengrass. Liman is always better off when he pairs comedy with action, like with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as dueling assassins in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (2005), as opposed to straight sci-fi such as the teleporting flick "Jumper" (2008).

Walt Disney once said that for every laugh, there should be a tear. Liman says that for every thrill, there should be a laugh. "Edge of Tomorrow" opens with plenty of Act One seriousness, from "Lawrence of Arabia" military meetings to a "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) approach to the beach invasion. Then, Liman cleverly pivots, allowing Cruise's surprise to double as audience surprise in a series of comic do-overs paying homage to the Groundhog.

Bill Paxton's military officer replaces Ned Ryerson's insurance salesman. "On your feet, maggot" echoes "watch that first step, it's a doozy." The "Full Metal B*tch" poster becomes a familiar image like Bill Murray's 6:00 alarm clock. A barracks full of troops stands in for the Punxsutawney diner where Murray was "a god, not the God." And Emily Blunt's Rita becomes, well, Andie MacDowell's Rita.

No wonder the baddies are called Mimics.

While Murray's toaster electrocutions and cliff plunges come as rock-bottom suicide attempts, Cruise's deaths are marked by comedic shrieks that rival Quicksilver in "X-Men" as the most fun moments of the summer. In fact, the Quicksilver scene spoofed Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" heist, so the real lesson might just be the rebirth of Cruise, who puts "War of the Worlds" (2005) and "Oblivion" (2013) behind him with his best sci-fi performance since "Minority Report" (2002). He shows he can turn the volume up to 11 for the action scenes, riding his motorcycle through the streets like Maverick, then turn it down a notch for an intimate barn scene with Blunt that recalls his "Top Gun" co-star Kelly McGillis in "Witness" (1985).

Blunt is a natural fit after her time-travel role in "Looper" (2012), schooling Cruise like Morpheus training Neo in "The Matrix" (1999) and delivering an "iso-pushup" that proves the human body is just as mesmerizing as CGI aliens. Their relationship keeps our interest once the "start over" gimmick fades, just as Michelle Monaghan did for Jake Gyllenhaal in the similar "Source Code" (2011). Granted, that film ended on a more thought-provoking note than "Edge of Tomorrow," which will leave you scratching your head until the "edge of tomorrow" to figure out the logic of its closing image.

It's a shame "Edge of Tomorrow" doesn't end as strongly as the first two-thirds of the movie, or we might be looking at a new sci-fi action classic. After so carefully plucking our chords for two-thirds of the flick, the climax feels like the writers went on "Cruise control." We still get to where we're going, but we don't really remember how we got there. This may be because Act Three is where all the logic rules come home to roost. Part of the reason "Groundhog Day" worked so well is that it didn't try to explain the "start over" process; it merely observed how it affected its characters.

This is the built-in benefit that fantasy holds over sci-fi.

Even so, you'll leave the experience feeling like your ticket was money well spent. Too many times, we walk out of the multiplex wishing we could start the day over and choose a different flick. As Sonny & Cher sang, "Before it's earned, our money's all been spent." But Punxsutawney Phil just reached out to Tom Cruise saying, "Put your little hand in mine, there ain't no hill or mountain we can't climb." "Groundhog Day" is that rare movie we'd gladly relive every day for the rest of our lives, while "Edge of Tomorrow" is a worthy rider of its coattails.

Feel free to forget your booties; it's warm out there this summer.

★ ★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this movie ranks in Jason's Fraley Film Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our "Fraley on Film" page.

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