'Edge of Tomorrow,' Tom Cruise run loops around competition

Just when you were ready to give up on the summer season and its cookie-cutter, been-there blockbusters, "Edge of Tomorrow" saves the day. It's a star-driven mass-market entertainment that's smart, exciting and unexpected while not stinting on genre satisfactions.

Certainly a $178-million Tom Cruise-starring science-fiction epic about humanity's fight to the death against pesky alien invaders does not sound as though it's pushing any envelopes, but with Doug Liman in charge, don't be so sure.

As previous credits like "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" attest, Liman is a director congenitally averse to doing things in an ordinary way. Aided by performances by Cruise and costar Emily Blunt that also depart from what's come before, "Edge of Tomorrow" manages to show us familiar events in a way we're not used to seeing them.

Initial credit for all this should go to Japanese novelist Hiroshi Sakurazaka, whose video-game-inspired "All You Need Is Kill" was the source material that took a village of screenwriters — Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth are the ones who got credit — to turn into a propulsive script.

"Edge of Tomorrow's" central idea — an ingenious mash-up of "War of the Worlds" and "Groundhog Day" encapsulated in the film's "Live, Die, Repeat" tag line — is easy enough to grasp. But the fast-moving story's unforeseen complexities so push against the corners of the mind that there are times when it's hard to be sure exactly what's happening and why.

Keeping us going at those moments and all others is Liman's confidence and elan as a director, his filmmaking bravado, if you will. Working with cinematographer Dion Beebe, editor James Herbert and visual effects supervisor Nick Davis, Liman is so adroit at layering in action and tension that we are swept away by his brisk cinematic tide even when we lose track of where it's taking us.

One of the keys to "Edge of Tomorrow's" effectiveness is the sharp, on-target performance by Cruise, who gets to play one of the rare blockbuster protagonists whose character is allowed to believably transform right in front of our eyes.

"Edge of Tomorrow" begins not with Cruise's Maj. William Cage but with the understandable chaos of an invasion of Earth by aliens known as Mimics, a creepy race that look a bit like a horde of angry metallic squid.

Five years into the battle for Earth's survival, Maj. Cage is introduced helicoptering into London to meet Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), the man in charge of a forthcoming D-Day like invasion of continental Europe by the United Defense Force, a do-or-die attempt to banish those Mimics once and for all.

Cage may be a major, but he is not a military man. Rather, he's a public relations specialist whose job has been to sell the war effort to the public. Not only that, in a shrewd nod to the way the actor's detractors see him, Cruise seems to enjoy the chance to play Cage as shallow, callow, self-interested and manipulative.

Not the most politic of men, Cage rubs the general the wrong way and ends up broken to private and placed in the care of Master Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton), a career soldier who believes in homilies like "there is no courage without fear" and "battle is the great redeemer."

Cage is placed among the veterans of J Squad and ends up in the front lines when the invasion of Europe begins the next day.

Totally at sea in his fancy ExoSuit body armor, not even sure how to fire his weapon, this stranger in a strange land catches a battlefield glimpse of one of the UDF's genuine killing machines, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Blunt), alternately known as the Angel of Verdun (a nod to one of World War I's bloodiest battles) or the more descriptive Full Metal Bitch.

Cage has barely gotten a look at Vrataski when he's unceremoniously killed by a Mimic. That's right, killed. But rather than end the film, that death jump-starts the plot into a higher gear.

For once Cage wakes up in the same helicopter that began his journey, he comes to realize he's reliving the preceding 24 hours. He has, for intriguing reasons that will be gradually revealed, entered into a time loop, fated to experience the day over and over again though the other people in his life think it's all happening for the first time.

Through the kind of trial and error video game players are familiar with, Cage soon stays alive long enough to exchange a few words with Vrataski, who tells him to seek her out the next time he awakes. That begins a complex process of understanding both what has happened to him and how the experience just might be of use to defeat the Mimics and end the war.

"Edge of Tomorrow's" continual repetition may sound boring, but Liman and his team have worked out multiple permutations and iterations to get us into each new recurrence, and both stars are strong actors fully committed to their roles.

With her blond hair, tough attitude and combat-ready physique, Blunt's Vrataski is very different from the characters the actress has played before as well as being a fine foil for Cage. As for the film's star, Cruise takes full advantage of the plot's notion that all that combat repetition gradually changes him into a fighting force to be reckoned with. We believe that transformation because we see it happening, which in a film as fantastical as "Edge of Tomorrow" is a very good thing indeed.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Edge of Tomorrow'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: In general release

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