Film is still, a hundred years into “talkies,” a visual medium.
Few things fly more in the face of that than a movie whose screenplay is largely a long run of monologues. If a voice-over narration is your idea of how to adapt a novel, then you haven’t “adapted” it at all. Images and actions are the deft and most engrossing way to tell a story.
“Cherry” is a Russo Brothers film based on a Nico Walker novel. They throw a lot of visual flourishes in the mix, take us into combat in Iraq and drug addiction and bank robberies in Cleveland.
But they leave the storytelling to the endless narration of the title character, an Army medic who “pops his cherry” in love, then in combat, later with heroin and finally with how he has to finance that PTSD habit, bank robberies.
From “Sometimes, I wonder if life is wasted on me” to “Everything there was about dying,” Cherry (Tom Holland) goes on and on, restating the obvious, explaining the visuals, telling us what the character’s thinking or feeling when that’s the task of acting.
Voice-over is a way of cut and pasting novel, cramming more content-and-context into your movie. When you’re taking us from college, first love (Ciara Bravo) with that girl who has “a thing for weak guys,” through the break-up that prompts him to enlist (in 2003), into the make-up after the break-up, through basic-training, Iraq combat, homecoming, drugs and then back to the robbery we see in the opening moments, all that narration just drags the picture to a halt.
A somewhat familiar story arc turns tedious long before the second hour of “Cherry” begins. And it goes on well beyond that second hour, too.
The Russos give us their take on basic training, with Cherry narrating “There was a lot of yelling,” helpful to those who haven’t noticed the drill sergeants doing just that. Really helpful to that rare bird who’s never seen a movie that depicts basic training.
They take us into combat, the tragedy of making friends in a combat zone, of letting yourself care when the Army promotes the most unquestioning cogs in the machine to Sergeant, where they assume authority equates with infallibility.
Then come the night terrors and shakes of PTSD back home, with your wife traumatized by proxy. That’s why Cherry gets into drugs and plunges into bank robbing to pay off his dealer, “Pills & Coke” (Jack Reynor) and Pills’ mostly-unseen and supposedly much-scarier boss, Black (Daniel R. Hill).
The Russos, who handled the last years of the Marvel/”Avengers-Captain America” run, try to whizbang their way through all this, leaving us with a relationship that lacks warmth, a tsunami of peripheral characters who barely register and a hero who talks and talks and talks and never lets us get inside his skin. They show that hero in situations — from combat to addiction to robbing banks — that have been better-blocked, staged and filmed by legions of filmmakers who came before them.
The only “jokes” here are the names of the banks our young vet robs — “Capitalist One,” “Sh—ybank” among them.
A true adaptation would have thinned every chapter of this film down, eliminated characters. This reminds me of the Chris Columbus “Harry Potter” movies, filmmakers afraid to leave out a single damned page of the book.
They don’t flinch at showing us the gruesome side of combat. But it’s like they’re at a loss about what to do with real people, real situations, real traumas or emotions without comic book men and women in tights and lots and lots of effects.
Well, at least they got a relative a screenwriting credit and another relative in the cast. Us? We got this grind of a movie to sit through.
MPA Rating: R for graphic drug abuse, disturbing and violent images, pervasive language, and sexual content
Cast: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor. Jeff Wahlberg, Michael Rispoli, Ann Russo, Daniel R. Hill and Theo Barklem-Biggs
Credits: Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Script by Angela Russo-Ostot and Jessica Goldeberg, based on a novel by Nico Walker. An Apple TV+ release.
Running time: 2:20