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‘Edge of Tomorrow’ thrills in spite of distracting Cruise

From the forceful-yet-vague title to the clever plot to the twisty, bug-eyed monsters, there is something refreshingly old-school about “Edge of Tomorrow.”

It feels straight out of a thumb-worn, 1959 issue of Galaxy Magazine, an enjoyably pulpy hunk of military science-fiction with a premise that’s part “Groundhog Day”and part “Starship Troopers.”

Director Doug Liman, doing his sharpest work in years, crams background info into the opening minutes. The Earth has been invaded — and Europe largely conquered — by kinetic, octopus-ish aliens nicknamed Mimics for their ability to adapt to whatever offense is thrown at them. Even the development of “jackets,” exo-skeletons bristling with heavy weapons that turn every soldier into a one-person tank, can do only so much against the Mimics.

But after a surprising victory at Verdun, a battle led by the instantly legendary soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), military PR flack Bill Cage (Tom Cruise) must sell the idea that the war is now winnable.

On the eve of an assault on Europe, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson, with not a lot to do), sure of victory, decides to embed the cowardly Cage with the first wave. When Cage resists, he’s dumped at Heathrow and conscripted into the front lines, under the boot of an over-confident drill sergeant (Bill Paxton, sporting one of the worst Southern accents you will hear this year).

Too bad the beach assault — staged and shot with overt shades of D-Day, especially as imagined by Spielberg in “Saving Private Ryan” — is a total slaughter. The Mimics seem to know the troops are coming and everyone dies horribly, including Cage and Vrataski…

Except Cage wakes up exactly where he started at Heathrow, a day before the battle, all the details the same. Again, he fights, again he’s killed, again he wakes. Over and over, Cage must fight and die, until he, along with Vrataski, who seems to know a bit about what is going on, can figure out how to break this existentially grim cycle.

Based on the 2004 Japanese young adult novel “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka with a script Frankensteined together by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects” author who knows his way around a knotty plot), Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, “Edge of Tomorrow” is clever, fun stuff. Its self-contained, Moebius strip vibe is especially refreshing in the context of summer franchise sequels, even if the time-travel plot will leave audiences occasionally mumbling, “But, wait, where are we now?”

As much as the movie owes to classic sci-fi, “Edge of Tomorrow” follows the exact logic of a videogame, part first-person shooter, part mystery: Every time Cage is reborn, he starts back at the beginning, getting incrementally further along in the day, only to die and go back to the beginning. Now and then, when things are going poorly, Vrataski simply puts a bullet in Cage’s brain, much in the way a player might intentionally lose a “life” to start over.

Liman, best known for the kinetic “Go” and “The Bourne Identity,” does a strong job with tone and pace, mixing practical effects with wide-screen CGI action and wit. Seeing as how Cage must die over and over to figure out the trap he’s in, his deaths take on a coyote versus roadrunner quality. (But skip it in 3-D; the effects seemed smeary and indistinct in spots.)

It is to Liman’s credit that “Edge” stays engaging in spite of its star, for the movie’s biggest obstacle is Cruise himself. So profoundly has his once-decent range shrunk to little but “Tom Cruise, Action Hero” that he just doesn’t seem to bother with characterization anymore. Cage is supposed to be a cowardly bureaucrat, but Cruise, consciously or no, never really sells him as such.

At its weakest, “Edge” ticks off the Cruise checklist. Of course he will use his multiple lives to become a great soldier. Of course his near-romance with Vrataski won’t have a hint of heat or passion. Of course Cruise becomes pure action, mowing down Mimics with gymnastic verve. We probably shouldn’t have expected anything else, even if “Edge” keeps us guessing.

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