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When I call Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014) the best video game movie I’ve ever seen, understand that’s neither sarcasm nor a pejorative: it really is the one film that perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about video games and successfully translates it to the big screen. Like the best video games, it’s got a gripping storyline to lead from one action setpiece to the next, a wannabe hero who becomes our avatar into the action and a precise understanding of the importance of multiple lives and the need to reset the whole game from time to time. The fact that Edge of Tomorrow can function as the equivalent of a life-action video game and still maintain enough genuine emotional heft and three-dimensional characters to seem like the furthest thing from a video game is one of the reasons why the film was one of the best of 2014.

Functioning as sort of a first-person-shooter take on Groundhog Day (1993), we get dropped into a reality where the Earth is under attack from an alien menace dubbed the Mimics. The Mimics are horrendously lethal, tentacled monstrosities that prove especially efficient at destroying soft-skinned humans and have proceeded to put the entire species into a serious headlock. After we develop exo-suit technology and creat “super soldiers,” however, we begin to fight back against the extraterrestrial menace and slowly make headway. The forces of humanity are now gathering for a last, desperate push against the Mimic threat on the European front (ala World War 2), a campaign that is being called “Operation Downfall.”

Into this set-up, we get the snide, arrogant, paper-pushing personality of Major William Cage (Tom Cruise). A proud desk jockey and bureaucrat, Cage is the furthest thing from a soldier, despite his rank. He gets the nasty shock of a lifetime, therefore, when he’s called before the imposing person of General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) and ordered to the frontline. Stripped of his rank, labeled a coward and handed over to the tender mercies of Master Sargeant Farell (Bill Paxton) and the rowdy grunts of J Squad, Cage is pretty much a sitting duck. Once he actually gets to the battlefield, however, he quickly becomes a cooked duck. Game over.

Until, that is, Cage wakes up back at the army base, on the morning of his previous death. Through some sort of exposure to the Mimic’s blood, Cage has now acquired their ability to “reset the day,” as it were: every time he dies, he’s just brought right back to the base, in the morning. As he works through this horrendous case of deja vu, Cage comes into contact with a highly skilled “super-soldier,” Sgt. Rita Pitaki (Emily Blunt), who knows exactly what he’s going through: after all, she used to have the same “condition” until recently. Rita wants to use Cage’s ability to put an end to the Mimic menace once and for all: if he can lead them to the Omega Mimic (and keep dying/resetting in the process), the human forces will be able to strike a decisive victory against the enemy, ending the nightmare.

Cage, however, is such a wimp that he can’t survive in the fury of battle for five minutes, let alone the length of time it will take to lead them to the Omega Mimic. Cue a rigorous training regime that will see poor Cage “die” more times than…well, than your usual video game character, shall we say. Over time, however, Rita is able to bludgeon Cage into the kind of soldier who just might have a chance out there. The odds are never less than dicey, however, and treacherous revelations lie around every corner. Will Cage be able to play this game through to the end or will he lose his last life trying?

First off, Edge of Tomorrow is an absolute blast, a non-stop thrill ride that leaves you breathless from the jump and never flags in energy, invention or wit for the entirety of its runtime time. Director Liman, working with a screenplay from genre virtuoso Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is an absolute wizard at crafting show-stopping action sequences and the entire film is a ridiculous amount of fun to watch. One of my big complaints with modern action films is that the action sequences are always staged in ways that are too needlessly kinetic, robbing the scenes of any sense of fluidity or space. This is definitely not the problem with Edge of Tomorrow, which manages to be non-stop, yet orderly enough to allow for the action sequences to have their own individual quirks and not devolve into blurs of motion.

The film also looks great, with a fully established world that feels lived in and authentic, while maintaining a kind of hyper-reality: again, very reminiscent of modern video games. Cinematographer Dion Beebe, whose resume includes things like Holy Smoke (1999), Chicago (2002) and the recent adaptation of Into the Woods (2014), turns in some suitably stunning images and the effects work is all top-notch.

While Cruise would probably be a huge draw for many viewers, I’ve never been an automatic fan of his: it really depends on the film, as far as I’m concerned. In this case, Cruise is a natural fit for the role of Major Cage and he turns in one of my favorite performances of his in years. Smug, self-serving and vaguely slimy, Cage is positioned as the least likable character you can imagine, yet Cruise is able to develop that into someone who’s a charismatic hero, by the film’s final reel. It’s a really neat hat trick and Cruise is incredibly likable here: I can see why he’s still regarded as a matinée idol. There’s a nuance and sense of irony to his performance that’s quite nice and he manages to pull some genuinely funny moments out of the film, as well (the bit where he bites it rolling under a car is absolutely hilarious, as is the bit where he gets “reset” after breaking his back).

Cruise receives excellent support from Emily Blunt, who turns in a nicely asskicking turn as Rita. She’s always believable as the cold-blooded soldier, yet her subtle emotional turns help posit her as a more three-dimensional character. Blunt and Cruise make a great team, to boot, and the two have genuine chemistry: the scenes where they slowly slog through the battle, inch by inch, are masterpieces of action yet still retain a surprising amount of intimacy.

The supporting cast is equally great, with veterans like Brendan Gleeson and Bill Paxton turning in some fantastic work, along with folks like Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way and Kick Gurry, who bring vivid life to the soldiers of J Squad. In fact, there’s no one performance that comes across as awkward, off or just flat-out awful: everyone in the cast gives consistently strong, believable performances, from the principals to the walk-ons. The film is pulpy, to be sure, but the acting still manages to be broad without sliding over into self-parody or stupidity.

I honestly wasn’t expecting Edge of Tomorrow to be anything special: if anything, I expected it would be nothing more than a glossy, well-made, big-budget studio film that was loud, frenetic and utterly devoid of meaning. Instead, the film ends up being a whip-smart, funny, thrilling and endlessly fun spectacle that slows down just enough for some character development but never enough to let up on the adrenaline. It also looked so good that I instantly regretted not seeing it in a legitimate theater: cest la vie, I suppose. While I enjoyed Liman’s Swingers (1996) back in the day and thought Go (1999) was alright, I never liked his Bourne Identity (2002), mostly because I didn’t care for the staging of the action sequences. Imagine my surprise, then, when the same director manages to helm one of my favorite action films in years. The world really is a funny place, isn’t it?