KNIGHT AND DAY with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. The movie trailer looked a bit cheesy but, frankly, I wasn't in the mood for anything heavy. I figured this Cruise/Diaz mindless lovefest certainly fit the bill.
Imagine my surprise that within the first three minutes of watching the movie after Cruise and Diaz boarded an almost empty commercial plane, I was completely sucked in. Within 10 minutes, after secret agent Cruise fought off at least a dozen people on the plane with guns, knives, and grenades that appeared out of nowhere, I was glued to the screen. Within 20 minutes, as Cruise and Diaz flew down the wrong side of a Boston freeway on a motorcycle with no helmets and with everyone in the city shooting at them, the movie owned me hook, line, and sinker.
Why, you ask?
Don't get me wrong, KNIGHT AND DAY was total cheese--I mean, at one point, Tom Cruise was hanging one-handed onto the roof of an SUV (and smiling at Diaz through the windshield) as it sped 100 mph down down the freeway. But by the time they got to the never-in-a-million-years-unbelievable action sequences, I already liked the characters. I believed the chemistry between them. I was already rooting for them to succeed. Most importantly, I was willing to take that leap of faith and watch the rest of the movie--no, scratch that. I HAD to see what happened to them. Wild horses or the promise of chocolate wouldn't have dragged me away from my television set.
The screenwriters of KNIGHT AND DAY are geniuses. They even put a "pet the dog" beat into the script early-on. What's that? That's when your main character, even while fighting off bullets and bad guys and simultaneously trying to fly a plane that's about to crash, pauses and makes a joke, seemingly to put a freaked out Diaz at ease. What a guy! How human of him! You wanted to hug the television screen and everyone in it. Pure genius.
That formula works for novels too. Even if you write a story about werewolves or dragons or time travel or secret agents, readers won't take that leap of faith with you into your reality unless you can get them emotionally invested in your characters. All the pretty prose and world-building won't make a bit of difference if they don't believe in your characters or care what happens to them.
KNIGHT AND DAY is cheesy, hokey, and totally unbelievable but well-worth the price of a rental. It should be required viewing for writers.