When the opening scene of Vanilla Sky features Tom Cruise driving into an eerily deserted Times Square, one thing becomes abundantly clear: this ain't your dad's Cameron Crowe movie. It's hard to imagine the amount of pressure that the director best known for heart-warming feelgooders was under while making his latest effort. Not only was he taking one of the riskiest gambles the Hollywood career casino has to offer - remaking a respected foreign film, Alejandro Amenábar's Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes - he would also be mangling the mush of America's most famous face (Tom Cruise) and striking out in a drastically new direction. Yes, Mr Crowe has tapped into his dark side. With critic-silencing results.
Oh, it all starts out recognisably enough. In fact, the first half hour could be titled The Adventures Of Jerry Maguire's More Arrogant Brother, with star Cruise bringing his trademark grinning winner to the screen once more. Drifting smugly through life, his character David Aames is a rich, women-want-him-men-wanna-be-him playboy with the world at his feet. He's got the requisite plush Manhattan pad, runs a huge publishing company inherited from his father and is the king of casual affairs. He's not even beyond half-inching a sexy girl (Penélope Cruz) from his best mate (Jason Lee). But David's carefree ways go seriously scare-shaped when his on-off bed partner, wannabe singer Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), decides to commit suicide by driving her car off a bridge - with him at her side.
David wakes up from a coma with a fractured phizog, and after that... Well, that would be telling. And we'd seriously advise stopping now and waiting until you've visited the cinema before reading on. To explain any further about the specific details would be to seriously curtail your enjoyment. Suffice to say the cinematic sleight-of-hand pulled off between the early scenes, which lull you into a false sense of security with Crowe's typically witty banter, and the mind-buzzing plot developments shortly thereafter, is a revelation. And the fact that the story segues so neatly from one to another is testament to the skilled approach taken to the remake, which retains the basic strong structure of the original while playing to Crowe's strengths. By adding his own personal touches - infusing the story with the sort of musical and cinematic pop culture references he's immersed in - he adds layers that only improve on Amenábar's story.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has a superb, on-form cast to bring it all so convincingly to life. In the capable hands of Cruise, David Aames runs the gamut of emotions, from his cocky introduction to the desperation and anguish of later events. As the script explores ever-darker avenues, so he unleashes Magnolia-esque levels of quality performance. Diaz's transformation from sexpot to psycho stalker, meanwhile, never feels false, and Cruz, who's reprising her Open Your Eyes role, is a beguiling beauty who radiates charm and intelligence. And keeping the leads on their toes is a dream supporting cast, including the likes of Almost Famous alumni Jason Lee and Noah Taylor, and even Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall. Hell, there's even a stalwart turn from Kurt Russell, who banishes memories of cine-crud like Soldier and Escape From LA with a measured, understated appearance as a shrink.
True, there are one or two moments in which the pace slackens; the occasional New-Ageism grates; and the odd chunk of heavy exposition where people solemnly intone the film's themes does jar. But they're few and far between as Crowe's Oscar-scooping screenwriting ability shines through. So many directors would have concentrated on the complicated plotting, leaving the characters to resemble helpless puppets, yanked and manipulated merely to tell the story. Here everyone is a flawed, driven human being.
The ideal, intelligent antidote to some of Hollywood's recent vacuous plot boilers, Vanilla Sky offers the sort of edgy, dangerous psychodrama that'll resonate in your head, keeping you thinking and debating long after the final song has lapsed into deafening silence. Go, see and enjoy having your perceptions scrambled. The lasting impression you'll have is of Crowe taking a chance and coming up trumps - to use his own musical metaphor, this "cover version" of Amenábar's work is close to note-perfect.