Dir: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Starring: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Jeff Wahlberg. 18, 141 mins
Nobody wants to be put in a box. And so it’s easiest to think of Cherry – the gritty new drama from Avengers: Endgame’s Joe and Anthony Russo, starring the current Spider-Man, Tom Holland – as a form of personal rebellion. Here are three men gobbled up into entertainment’s largest and most ravenous creative belly. If they ever want to escape, drastic action is needed. Cherry – brash, angry, and loud – feels like an overcompensation. It’s so outside of their comfort zone that it actively neglects their individual talents.
The Russos don’t just helm blockbusters (they’re also behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War) – they have a long history in network comedy. They’ve worked as both directors and producers on Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings. Here, they’ve adapted the striking, semi-fictionalised autobiography of Nico Walker, who served on more than 250 combat missions as an Army medic in Iraq, was left with debilitating PTSD, and went on to rob 11 banks over a four-month period in order to fuel his drug addiction.
His words have a raw, searing quality to them, as if they’re all gushing out from an open wound. And the book was a hit – treated by Americans as a much-needed personal perspective on the opioid epidemic and the continuing social neglect of veterans. But it’s hard to believe that the Russos’ creative energies were fully invested in the political urgency behind Walker’s story. Seemingly unable to shake off old habits, they’ve stuffed their film with bizarre Easter eggs and visual gags. The places our unnamed protagonist (Holland) robs are called things like “S****y Bank” and “Bank F*** America”.
The directors never go so far as to treat Walker’s experiences as a joke, but they’ve clearly relished the opportunity – unchained from the relative monotheism of Marvel – to flex their stylistic muscles. Cherry is a true rogue’s gallery of cinematic tricks: slo-mo, voiceover narration, freeze-frames, fourth-wall breaks, shifting colour palettes, montages, and overhead shots. It attempts at times to consciously tie the film to Martin Scorsese’s work. But the long takes and studied compositions of Goodfellas told a rich, complex story of their own – here, the flourishes are merely flourishes. There’s nothing exactly to be gained from the words “COCK HOLSTER” and “DICK EARS” flashing up on screen in garish red titles as they’re being yelled out by drill sergeants.
A handful of cutaways to the protagonist’s wife, dream girl, and fellow addict Emily (Ciara Bravo) standing in an abstract, stage-like space with a black eye is all her character gets in terms of backstory. She’s otherwise treated as “the Madonna” to an ex-girlfriend’s “whore” (Kelli Berglund) – a character whose entire onscreen role consists of her supposedly dancing too provocatively and acting too friendly towards other men.
The screenplay by Angela Russo-Otstot (sister to the Russos) and Jessica Goldberg never treats the protagonist’s possessiveness as a flaw or mark on his saintly record, but presents him as some broad, shapeless vessel of bruised masculinity. And while Holland may never hit a false note, there’s an odd, underlying strain to his performance – as if the natural charisma that made him a deeply likeable superhero has been pushed beneath the surface, screaming for air. And for what? Does the ability to rage and swear make him a more talented actor than before? Cherry makes you wonder what he, and the Russos, think they have to prove.