Review: Tom Holland goes dark, or tries to, in surface-level 'Cherry'
The 'Spider-Man' star and his 'Avengers' directors get down and dirty in unconvincing junkie drama
If "Cherry" was from a first-time filmmaker, it could be looked at as a stylish and flashy gambit that, while flawed and more than a bit messy, shows a fair amount of promise going forward, once its filmmaker learns to exercise some much needed self restraint.
"Cherry," however, is not a first-time effort. It's directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, who steered the last two "Captain America" films and the last two "Avengers" movies, and who should be well-past "Cherry's" empty indulgences at this point in their billion dollar careers. In their hands, the movie falters badly — it's a vapid vie for street cred by two guys who don't need it — and star Tom Holland is left exposed in a role that shows his limitations as an actor outside of his Spidey suit.
Holland plays the unnamed protagonist — not giving him a name is another of the film's needless, pseudo-edgy superfluities — who, for the purposes of this review, we'll refer to going forward as Cherry.
Based on Nico Walker's 2018 novel, "Cherry" follows Cherry on his journey from college student to Army cadet to bank robbing, heroin-shooting junkie, and the film is meant as a critique of capitalism, the way we treat our veterans and the lost hope of the George W. Bush years. Except it's more like the "Dead Presidents" of the Iraq War, with all the weaknesses of the Hughes Brothers' 1995 big picture opus but without the monumental soundtrack to help offset them.
Cherry has eyes for Emily (ex-Nickelodeon star Ciara Bravo, all grown up), which he makes clear in his cold voiceover: "I thought man, I'd really like to (expletive) this girl," he says matter-of-factly. They just don't write poetry like they used to.
Cherry and Emily have a rather volatile relationship, and when she off-the-cuff declares she's moving to Montreal to go to college, he even more off-the-cuff decides to join the Army. But she was just kidding! No matter: he's off to war, where the atrocities he witnesses set-up a lifetime of PTSD nightmares.
Back home in Cleveland, Cherry can't sleep, so he develops an addiction to painkillers. The slippery slope quickly leads him to heroin addiction, and before he knows it he's robbing banks to pay for his habit, which Emily has now joined him in, and the ticking clock on his dangerous derelict lifestyle is growing louder with each passing day.
It's gritty stuff, no doubt, or at least it should be. In the hands of the Russos, however, it's all gloss, down-and-out chic draped in music video sheen. There's never really any sense of danger, just blockbuster boys "going for it" by pretending to slum it.
The babyfaced Holland, who also stumbled in the jumbled sci-fi adventure "Chaos Walking," is overwhelmed by the material and never quite connects with his character at any point in his arc. He's far from convincing as a junkie thief and even less so as an awkward college student early on in the film, but he at least registers fear and quiet resignation during his basic training and war scenes.
The movie is Holland's, but he's not up to the task, which makes the slow motion, tight focus, overhead shots and operatic music cues feel like they're overcompensating for the film's lack of emotional connection. The overlong, overstuffed film is broken up into chapters, including a prologue and an epilogue, which gives it the aura of a '90s Tarantino homage, minus the self-referential banter of the characters. And also minus the fun: "Cherry" is a dreary ride, albeit a well-composed one, and veteran Detroit-born cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel ("Drive") gives it a handsome, accomplished look.
"Cherry" is highly watchable — it's never dull — but it's difficult to believe, especially in the way it treats its bank robbery scenes. Holland's Cherry walks in, makes a vague threat and leaves with a pile of cash, and never seems to worry much about getting caught, nor do police ever seem to be on his tail. Decades of on-screen bank robberies have taught us that it can't be this easy. But that's "Cherry": it only pretends to get its hands dirty, and mistakes Instagram filters of desperation for authenticity.
Rated R: for graphic drug abuse, disturbing and violent images, pervasive language, and sexual content
Running time: 141 minutes
On Apple TV+