At one point in the Russo Brothers’ new movie, “Cherry,” Tom Holland’s PTSD-afflicted Nico Walker, a former army medic, gets high in the street. He removes his socks and shoes, shooting heroin into the foot. A few moments earlier, in the midst of a robbery, Walker tells the bank teller to push the button, and officially sets off the silent alarm in his life.
If Charles Bukowski had written “True Romance,” this would be it. Warts and all (the film isn’t perfect by any stretch), “Cherry” is a genuine experience. One that I don’t think you can find anywhere else at the moment. After making four Marvel movies with their boy wonder, Anthony and Joe Russo have spun America’s beloved Peter Parker in the other direction, imagining a world without Spider-Man if he had broken bad instead. This is a bold swing, and one I hope the directors of cinema’s highest-grossing film ever keep taking.
It’s as far away from “Avengers: Endgame” as they could get. A bleak, gritty, visually-stunning, and rather hopeful spin on the American discovery. I say that instead of “dream” because Holland’s Nico isn’t searching for the high ground. He merely needs directions to purpose and identity. A good man stuck into a brutal war, which damages him for life, sending him plunging into a world of drugs and addiction, which soon ensnares the love of his life, Emily (played with force and tenderness by Ciara Bravo), as well. It’s a visceral opus that the Russos, adapted by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg from Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, flush with personality and blood-soaked imagery that counts among cinema’s most raw exploitations of combat and drug usage. Both lead actors go all in here, but Holland carries the film to its rightful spot of troubled gem.
“Cherry” doesn’t have a chance of being anything without the 24-year-old everyman who transforms like Christian Bale yet works as hard as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Here, he undergoes countless physical transformations. Joe Russo told me in our interview that the actor lost a good portion of his body weight, put it back on, and then lost it again during production. It’s an all-in, go-for-broke performance that should be remembered as some of his finest work. Walker isn’t cut for a hero’s shoes, but you keep rooting for him because you know the war twisted his soul into a disoriented paper clip.
What so many overlook with returning war veterans, which includes a lot of young men and women, is that they never shed those horrors taken in from overseas, and their trauma isn’t relative. One of the more fascinating approaches that the Russos take here is showing us everything, even the harsher moments for Nico and Emily.
Bravo holds the screen evenly with Holland, creating a dirty yet emotional chemistry that grows over the film’s 140 minute run time. We don’t spend less time with Nico’s love, but Bravo’s screen presence never allows us to forget her impact, even when “Cherry” is in prison. The title of the film refers to a soldier’s first brush with real combat, which our anti-hero finds himself in plenty.
The supporting cast add their own flavors to the mix here, including standout work from Michael Gandolfini (soon to play his late dad’s most famous role) and Forrest Goodluck, who you may know from “The Revenant,” where he played Leonardo DiCaprio’s doomed son. Jack Reynor is chilly menace and sadness, and the legendary Michael Rispoli has a great scene.
If there’s a setback here, it’s the run time. While the minutes aren’t lost, you do feel the blunt of the journey in the third act, which includes excess that could have been trimmed. While the big budget adventures never felt like 155, this one feels much of its 140 minutes. However, while there may be some chewy pieces on this gigantic steak (and it’s huge), the juice in Walker’s story keeps you infested until the final poetic shot.
I use the Bukowski/”True Romance” reference, because this film feels like something Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino could have teamed up on, and they would have infused it with the sharp words of the famed novelist who hated paychecks yet had endless stories. Holland’s soldier of misfortune has quite a few, and thankfully lived to tell them.
After making the most accessible of movies, Anthony and Joe Russo pointed their aim in a completely different direction, bringing a larger scale to the dark side of humanity, where heroes are seldom found and the gutter always seems to be closer than the roof. “Cherry” isn’t for everyone, but I found it good enough to revisit soon.
Armed with cinema’s most charismatic (Holland’s secret weapon according to Joe) and a humanistic yet desolate true story, “Cherry” aims for the heart, brain, and gut. The Russos, directors and sister, go for all of it.
I’m down for more of that.
Bottom Line: “Cherry” isn’t greatness, but it’s close.