Hollywood types don’t like to be pigeonholed. It’s especially the case with young actors who become famous for a particular role, but don’t want that role to dominate the public’s perception of them for the remainder of their careers. So they take parts that really stretch our understanding of their capabilities, of what we assume they’d avoid in order to keep their images pristine. Think Daniel Radcliffe, the erstwhile Harry Potter, who took a role requiring full frontal nudity in the stage play Equus, among other choices designed to go against the grain of our expectations.
Tom Holland, the erstwhile Spider-Man, has now reached that point after appearing as the pubescent webslinger in five different movies, with at least one more to come later this year. But it’s not just Holland who is trying to upset the apple cart with Cherry, the new feature that has just debuted on Apple TV+. It’s also the film’s directors, who have thrice directed Holland throughout their own career-defining decade as directors of some of the most well-regarded films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Joe and Anthony Russo also want to prove they are not defined by Captain America and The Avengers, even if those movies transformed them from the makers of Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me and Dupree into two of the names most readily entrusted with action tentpole spectacles.
Cherry is indeed a big change for all three, though at least in Holland’s case, we could see the rumblings of that change in last year’s violent Southern gothic drama The Devil All the Time. It’s the story of a never-named character (that old trick) whose chequered young adulthood takes him from serving as a medic in the battlefields of Iraq to a victim in the battlefields of PTSD and drug abuse. But just because Holland and the Russos want to show us their full bag of tricks, doesn’t mean a deep dive into human misery is necessarily the right place for them to have turned.
Speaking of bags of tricks, Cherry is like one big back of tricks searching for a story. It represents an obvious if not conscious attempt on the part of the Russos to transpose grand scale execution onto a smaller story, thereby showing us all the techniques they’ve learned while also trying to confer outsize importance on that story. They’ve got cameras on drones flying through battlefields, swiveling through moving cars, and dollying through the action, plus filters to simulate various sorts of drug use. It certainly lends momentum to a story that otherwise is pretty sparse, and familiar to anyone whose watched any movie about a life, or in this case lives, decimated by drugs.
Holland’s character – he’s called Cherry in the credits, though that’s not actually his name – starts out as an innocent with messy bangs who’s fallen for a girl at his university. She’s got a name, Emily, and she’s played by Ciara Bravo. They’re both a bit out of sync with the rest of the world, but that puts them perfectly in sync with each other. Unfortunately, she abruptly tells Cherry one day that she’s moving to Montreal to go to school, meaning it’s quits for them. She ends up reversing course on this decision, but by that point, Cherry has already decided to drown his despair by enlisting in the army. It’s 2003 and Cherry goes through basic training to ship out to Iraq, but not before marrying Emily to ensure nothing else gets in their way.
He survives his deployment, but it almost would have been better if he didn’t. Cherry is besieged by PTSD when he gets home, having pushed the intestines back inside wounded soldiers more times than any man should, and this leads to a bad oxycontin habit. In a fit of frustration one day, Emily downs a couple pills herself, and before long, they’re both shooting heroin. Cherry’s robbing banks to pay for it.
Cherry employs a familiar narrative style that relies heavily on Holland’s narration and the regular appearance of eccentric supporting characters involved in energetic set pieces. It’s a style that feels reminiscent of Goodfellas, though there are certainly plenty of examples before and since. To their credit, the Russos keep things moving despite a bloated two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time that seems to have been another takeaway from their experiences in the MCU. They inject plenty of life into a story that could have drowned in the miserablism of damaged lives.
About that miserablism though. It’s not that there’s not value to reminding us that lives are ruined by war, as veterans are discarded by a society that doesn’t need them once they’ve fulfilled their purpose, or that these discarded souls turn to drugs and crime. Greater value would come from finding a new avenue for exploring these themes, one that doesn’t feel regurgitated from other films. Writers Angela Russo-Otsot (the directors’ sister) and Jessica Goldberg try to find that distinctiveness through tangents that don’t go anywhere and certainly would have been cut if the film were traditional feature length.
They’ve also employed plenty of social commentary that’s humorous at first but just feels showy as it wears out its welcome. For example, in this world where the main character does not have a name, neither do financial institutions, who are also indicted for their role in what’s happened to our leads. The banks here are called things like Bank and Shitty Bank, while characters are seen wearing nametags like “Whomever.” Cherry’s own nameplate on his uniform just reads “Soldier.” This could be anybody’s story, the film seems to say, but it undercuts that stab at confronting realism with a sort of fairytale quality that requires you to accept certain things at face value. Like the fact that Cherry can rob as many banks as he wants, with no partner and nothing obscuring his face from the security cameras, and basically walk out with wads of cash and no consequences.
Of course, there are consequences for Cherry, even if the long arm of the law should have delivered them not long after he first wrote “I have a gun” on a dollar bill and pushed it toward a teller. The consequence of playing Peter Parker, and of having the creative freedom to indulge your every whim, is a feature that doesn’t serve any of them particularly well, even while confirming those capabilities they’re so eager to prove to us.
Cherry is currently streaming on AppleTV+.