by Philip Price
Director: Joe & Anthony Russo
Starring: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo & Jack Reynor
Runtime: 2 hours & 21 minutes
In April of 2019, Joe and Anthony Russo had just come off of making the biggest movie of all time, but instead of taking the summer off to relax and enjoy the receipts (as well as the relief of somehow managing to meet and/or exceed all expectations with that MCU season finale) they decided to roll right into making another film. A completely different kind of film. Whether this had to do with needing a change of pace, tone, or a release from that much surveyed environment where every facet was picked apart by fans the one thing that seems abundantly evident is the fact the Russo's felt an urgency to bring the story of Nico Walker to the screen and address the opioid epidemic. While said tone and subject matter are vastly different when it comes to ‘Avengers’ movies and something like “Cherry” it seems safe to assume no matter the material that the Russo's have now reached a level at which they operate that will be hard to come back from. That is to say that despite its humbler ambitions and price tag, “Cherry” still feels like an epic. This is one hundred percent an event film of sorts where, despite there being no Gods or heroes challenging mad titans for the survival of humanity, the characters are still addressed and treated with the same reverence of a Tony Stark; the shots just as elaborate, the scope larger than anticipated, and the score just as sweeping. It's almost as if the directing duo are keen to point out how these people and their problems are part of that humanity that is worth saving as well - or at least remind those that can empathize with Tom Holland's character that they are. In that, the Russo's have concocted a searing, but scattered takedown of the Iraq war through one man’s experience that essentially delivers him from one hell to another as set to Van the Man’s soulful yet oftentimes heartbreaking voice that moves beyond the words of Walker’s book of the same name on which this is based and into the raw emotions of his journey.
At two hours and 20 minutes the Russo's, working from a screenplay by Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot, throw a lot at the wall much of which tends to work given the drastic tonal shifts of each act, but as a whole leaves the viewer in a state of both surprise and confusion. Surprise largely at how entertaining this mess remains despite those major changes in tone but confused simply by everything Walker’s story encompasses and what the focus of this story is by way of meaning. Not every movie necessarily needs a main idea or central theme and “Cherry” certainly has a thesis statement in that the memories of war are battles those in the armed forces have to fight long after they’ve left the actual battlefield, but what it says or means to say about these experiences feels as if it gets lost in the shuffle. That said, how it says what it wants to say is a different conversation entirely as the Russo's execution is never not grandiose or energetic. There is an indisputable number of bold choices if not necessarily innovative ones that lend the project both an impressive sense of style and Holland’s protagonist a sense of self on top of all the work Holland is doing (and trust me, he's putting in some work). Every choice the directors make is seemingly in support of building the character that embodies Walker’s perspective here and not only his point of view but getting inside his head and taking us through his experiences in the most visceral ways possible. As is true of the novel, the sections covering Iraq feel the most honest and brash and are where the Russo's big swings work best. Choices that involve text flashing across the screen in unison with drill sergeants yelling them, brutally honest policy descriptions serving as bank names, or shot selections that literally put us inside Holland’s character show the fire in the Russo's bellies and an admirable determination to make this as raw and powerful a portrait as they can even if the movie itself ends up feeling like it's trying a bit too hard.
Based on Walker's 2018 semi-autobiographical novel, the film follows the main character from 2002 through to the present day. The screenplay breaks the film into five separate parts as well as a prologue and epilogue the first part of which begins in 2002 when life was beginning as it's titled, meaning when Holland's character who is never directly named here (though said name is referenced at least twice in the opening six minutes), first meets Ciara Bravo's Emily. The two are attending a local community college near where Walker was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. What is key to glean from part one is that Walker is largely a good, kind-hearted guy who can't help but stumble into less than ideal situations and circumstances that warp his sense of self, of self-worth, and his purpose into large amounts of doubt. There are indications of the direction Walker will go given his no resistance reaction to trying ecstasy and the fact his friends - James Lightfoot (Forrest Goodluck), Roy (Kyle Harvey) and Cousin Joe (Michael Gandolfini) - along with himself definitely sold drugs at one point or another. And yet, the character is extremely endearing and by all accounts insanely well-meaning. Emily comes from a broken home though and has sworn off love and marriage therefore purposefully sabotaging her relationship with Walker to the point she pushes him to sign up for the Army after telling him she's leaving for Canada at semester's end. Before shipping off to basic, the couple resolve their issues and marry in an impromptu ceremony at the courthouse. This segues into part two and the titular part three which chronicles both basic training and the eleven months spent in Iraq where Walker served as a medic. Parts four and five are reserved for Walker's return home and dealing with what, in Walker's real life, a forensic psychiatrist would describe as one of the worst cases of post-traumatic stress disorder he’d ever seen. As a result of the PTSD, Walker developed a heroin addiction and in 2011 began robbing banks, of which he would carry out ten heists in four months before being arrested and sentenced to eleven years in prison. The movie follows this trajectory beat by beat in the third act. “Cherry” is a lot of things in that it begins as this coming-of-age story, grows into a war movie, and then bleeds into both an addiction drama and a crime film. To their credit, the Russo's find compelling avenues and facets of Walker's personality to explore in each part of the film given the ever-changing circumstances, but there's simply too much going on in the film for the stories any one of these sections is telling to really make any kind of lasting impact.
The casting of the film is quite emblematic of the overstuffed nature of the narrative though Holland, as previously stated and as is the case with his directors, is giving the film everything he's got. Sure, the 24-year-old goes on what is essentially a 20-year journey here and doesn't look a day older from the first moment he spots Emily then he does when he is released from prison, but he holds things down nonetheless and is actually tasked with having to play multiple layers of the same character within a single scene. This speaks to the Russo's bold moves as they choose to have Holland break the fourth wall fairly frequently in the first act or two before these asides dwindle in the latter half which comes across in a way that feels more like they forgot they were doing it than it does an intentional choice meant to mimic the fact the character was too high at that point in his life to comment on it. That isn't to say Holland isn't able to successfully convey this sense of a future Walker speaking to the camera while taking part in an event from his past critical to our understanding of his story, but more it isn't a consistent or striking enough choice that really enhances the storytelling. This technique is probably used most frequently in the basic training section of which much of the action is conveyed via montage. Introduced through another Van Morrison track in "Into the Mystic" the typical beats of haircuts, physicals, berating drill sergeants, and newfound camaraderie are all hit upon, but it is also in this section that it becomes apparent just how sprawling the cast is and therefore further emphasizes there's simply too many moving parts for any of it to mean much of anything. At this point, the audience has already been introduced to and momentarily invested in Walker's hometown crew only for that cast of characters to largely disappear never to be heard from again and instead replaced by the likes of a host of different ranking dickhead officers from Sgt. North (Theo Barklem-Briggs) to Staff Sgt. Greene (Adam Long) each of which get their own quick insert shot of a backstory over which Walker narrates. Walker also finds a new friend in Jimenez (Jeff Wahlberg) who enlisted because he knocked up his girlfriend which of course is also communicated through a quick flashback of a backstory. Jose Pablo Cantillo is an especially unhinged Drill Sgt. and even Damon Wayans Jr. shows up in a single scene for a bit of ironic casting as Drill Sgt. Masters. Needless to say, the indulgence is apparent. Worst yet is that the majority of these characters and interactions only add morsels of information to the experience rather than providing any real sense of momentum or contributions to the main ideas around which the film actually wants to discuss.
The fact that the reason the Russo's were attracted to this story and felt so passionately about telling it in the first place is ultimately lost among everything else they decide to throw at this story is maybe the most depressing aspect of the whole ordeal. It's evident in so much of the first act that what the directors really want to zero in on is the ignorance and even innocence in some sense of the word that these children are more or less plucked from before being shipped off to a warzone under the pretense of there being this existential threat, they're supposed to help prevent which by and large turns out not to be the case. In the words of the real Walker, "Going there (Iraq), you find out you’re the problem. It seemed like we were trying to provoke as much fighting as we could." This is touched upon slightly in the basic training sequence when Holland's character states that he's, "starting to get this feeling like it was all just make-believe." But more than be a political film about the role the U.S. plays in foreign disputes, “Cherry” is more a dissertation on the ramifications of the involvement in such actions and the struggle to integrate back into family and civilian life...or at least it wants to be. Furthermore, the film suggests a great many of the doctors and psychiatrists tasked with caring for and overseeing the rehabilitation of these soldiers default to prescriptions that lead to addictions that contribute to an epidemic because it's the quickest, most efficient way to numb the pain. The issue with not conveying these ideas more successfully being that the Russo's and their screenplay are trying to adapt one art form to another without actually adapting the art to the form. A novel can encompass different decades, genres, and tones without as much streamlining as a film requires. A book can be many things, but when making a movie one has to choose the aspect from which it will be told. One has to pull back the leaves and the branches offered in a book in order to see the trunk or what the movie is actually going to be about, but “Cherry” gets so caught up in its genre elements it forgets the ideas it’s supporting entirely. As a result, the Russo's are unable to get out of their own way long enough to allow those concepts and ideas that initially brought them to the project to come to fruition or serve as the foundation of the movie as they should. But hey, it has a really great soundtrack.
“Cherry” will be streaming on AppleTV+ on March 12.