After that, Liman spent years developing a film adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity; when that film opened in 2002, it reinvigorated Matt Damon’s floundering career, redefined the modern spy movie, and made a mint. Three years later, he directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith, riding a wave of Brangelina chemistry (and tabloid rumors) to his biggest grosses to date. His next film, 2008’s Jumper, is his only genuinely bad movie (though a modest hit); he followed it up with the Valerie Plame-Wilson drama Fair Game, a well-reviewed smaller release.
Add them all up, and Liman’s films have grossed over $400 million — and when you add in the numbers from the second and third Bourne films (which Liman exec-produced), that figure doubles. But even only tallying the films he’s directed puts Liman in the moneymaking leagues of David O. Russell, Guy Ritchie, Cameron Crowe — and higher than Judd Apatow, Spike Lee, Baz Luhrmann, and Jonathan Demme (among others). We’re not talking about a director of obscure indies here; Liman directs high-grossing, crowd-pleasing popcorn pictures. So why is he so comparatively unknown?
Edge of Tomorrow may well change all that. The film’s high concept (Groundhog Day as an action movie!) and mediocre trailers do a reasonable job of hiding what a smart and funny picture it is. Liman and his writers know the premise — a military PR man (Cruise) is forced into fighting in the key battle of an intergalactic war, yet somehow ends up in a time loop that starts him over with every death — is fundamentally humorous, and they treat it as such. It turns out that transforming Groundhog Day into a shoot-‘em-up isn’t that much of a stretch, if you understand what made Harold Ramis’ classic funny (at least, on a structural level): screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Liman’s Fair Game) ingeniously work through all the variations, just as the protagonist his himself is trying every angle, revising his approach with each restart.
What’s more, they turn Cruise’s screen persona on its head, making the savviest cinematic use of his pre-existing baggage since Magnolia a decade and a half ago. For a good long while (particularly in the late ‘80s), Cruise’s specialty was playing the World’s Greatest ______, be it World’s Greatest Fighter Pilot (Top Gun), World’s Greatest Pool Player (The Color of Money), World’s Greatest Racecar Driver (Days of Thunder), even World’s Greatest Bartender (Cocktail). In Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise plays the World’s Worst Soldier, an utter coward who first makes excuses (“I do what I do, you do what you do. I’m not a soldier, really”) and then makes threats — anything to avoid shedding his dress uniform and actually going out in the field to fight. (The contrast is even more jarring once he shows up in the barracks, which immediately bring to mind Top Gun, escorted by Bill Paxton, whose presence here is a big wink to action fans.) Thus, we have an actual character arc to complement the plot mechanics and action beats.
But Liman has always had a flair for those little touches. The moment that sticks with me in The Bourne Identity isn’t the deservedly beloved car chase — it’s the moment before, when Jason Bourne realizes what’s about to happen, and asks the car’s owner if there’s anything he should know about the vehicle. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is chock full of well-executed action, but that’s not what’s memorable about it; it’s the way Liman frames those sequences within the thick sexual tension of the protagonists (and lest you think that movie’s just another forgotten shoot-‘em-up, a throwaway reference to said tension gets one of the biggest laughs in next week’s 22 Jump Street). The big set pieces in Edge of Tomorrow are as sturdy as ever — breathless, tightly paced, gracefully choreographed. But they’re never just empty action, like so much of what will fill the multiplex this summer. (Cue Transformers 4 reference.)
Still, the question remains: why is Liman still somewhat anonymous, identified on the Edge of Tomorrow posters as “the director of The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith” rather than by name? Some of it is a matter of perception. Because of Jon Favreau’s presence as writer/star, and his quick transition to filmmaking himself, Swingers is more often thought of as his film than Liman’s; the Bourne sequels outgrossed the original, and the shaky-cam style that their director, Paul Greengrass, brought to those films made them seem his entirely.
But much of this seems to go back to his early years. A 2008 New York profile sets down, in black and white, many of the stories and rumors that surrounded the filmmaker, most of them concerning his rocky transition from the run-and-gun indie style of Swingers to the big-budget, big-studio Bourne. “I like to keep my options open,” he told New York, of his on-set atmosphere. “I’m known for changing my mind.” The Bourne set was reportedly one of controlled chaos, where Liman worked to “find the movie” while making it. That idea, needless to say, is not beloved by studio suits: “Liman’s process seemed costly, unorganized, and, worse, immature.” He was reduced to making requests through Damon, and doing unauthorized reshoots surreptitiously. “Universal hated me,” he recalled. “I had an archenemy in the studio. They were trying to shut me down.” They didn’t, and for all the trouble (and delays, and studio-mandated reshoots) Bourne ultimately proved highly profitable. But they took the franchise away from him, handing it over to Greengrass, and he got the Mr. and Mrs. Smith gig only at Brad Pitt’s insistence.
It’s one thing to make movies that go over budget or over schedule; it’s another to openly defy studios and refuse to play nice with producers. That’s the kind of reputation that keeps a director, commercially successful or no, from getting work — and the gaps in Liman’s filmography (Edge is only his fifth film in the 18 years since Swingers) indicate that the blackballing may have taken — and from getting due credit for the work he’s done. But only up to a point. The stories (and rumors) surrounding Liman’s methodology have cooled, and these days, the work and the money speak loudest. If Edge of Tomorrow is any indication, Liman may finally attain the marquee status that has, for so long, eluded him.