PLAYING heroes, wise guys and men on the precipice is a cinch for Tom Cruise. After watching him in 40 films over more than 30 years, audiences know the drill only too well. In no particular order, the Cruise character grins, runs fast, kills hordes of baddies and gets the girl: it's an easy A all the way. But his new movie Edge of Tomorrow is a departure from the norm because he's dead within minutes of the opening scene - and then dies dozens more times after that.
The film is both a conventional sci-fi action flick and a wink at the notion of the star vehicle, where Cruise gets to indulge in a bit of self-mockery while doing his thing: you know - the grinning, running, killing and wooing. Most satisfying of all, Edge of Tomorrow is cracking entertainment and everything you ever wanted in a big-budget summer blockbuster.
Some things never change, though. Cruise looks impressive in uniform and over the years he's starred in plenty of movies that belaboured the point. In fact, he's played military men in four different decades - Top Gun (1986), A Few Good Men (1992), The Last Samurai (2003), to name a few and now Edge of Tomorrow - which must be a record of some sort.
The twist this time is that he's not a brash anti-authority type who takes matters in his own hands. The movie is set in the future, during a time of global apocalypse. Europe has been invaded by a superior alien race and is on the verge of catastrophic defeat but the defence forces, aided by the invention of a high-tech battle suit, are beginning to push back.
Cruise is Major William Cage, a public relations officer who is all smiles when he's on camera but has an aversion to combat. It's not often you see a character he plays squirming at the prospect of being sent into battle.
In a move that seals his fate, Cage rejects an order by Commanding Officer General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to join a large-scale, D-Day-like aerial invasion of France. His reward is a demotion to recruit followed by what amounts to, well, a mission impossible.
He's bellowed at by an unsympathetic Master Sergeant (Bill Paxton), dumped into an infantry unit and handed a heavy-duty exo-suit he has no idea how to operate. The soldiers are dropped onto a beach in Normandy, where they are massacred by the vastly superior multi-limbed aliens, called Mimics. Cage manages to kill an Alpha Mimic and is splattered with its "blood" before he is killed himself. He then wakes up at the start of the same day, and goes through the same sequence of events until his violent death.
With the knowledge gained from reliving events over and over again, Cage is able to stay alive for just a little bit longer each time until Rita (Emily Blunt), a toned, tough-as-nails fighter whose own death precedes his, realises that Cage is caught in the loop. "When you wake up, come look for me," she tells him.
Rita has been through the same experience but thanks to a blood transfusion, she is no longer able to defy death. She helps by getting Cage combat-ready but it's up to him to figure out how to stay alive long enough to take out the Mimics' brain centre - known as the Omega - and save the day, so to speak.
Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) from a script by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is based on All You Need is Kill, a 2004 novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. It's smarter and sharper than the average blockbuster, and the action is intense and virtually non-stop. It also conveys a decent sense of humour.
Given the film's sensibilities - Groundhog Day (1993) meets Saving Private Ryan (1998) with a splash of Back to the Future (1985) - Edge of Tomorrow stays somewhat less than predictable. This is a movie where Cruise turns back the clock - in more ways than one.