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'Cherry,' a failed American epic despite sincere performances

Russo brothers’ adaptation of war veteran’s semi-autobiography lacks emotional depth

In Part One of the film “Cherry,” adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical 2018 novel of the same title, Tom Holland plays the titular character in a college setting. Sporting choppy bangs and a pair of glasses, Holland stares at Emily (Ciara Bravo), his stunning girlfriend-to-be, during class. Of course, this is the more innocent beginning of his eventual painful downward spiral, from heartbroken college dropout to decorated Iraq Army medic to desperate heroin addict and jaded bank robber. 

But at that moment, the similarity between Cherry and Holland’s more light-hearted character of Peter Parker from the “Superman” films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not go unnoticed. This prompts the question of whether the actor is able to step up to the challenging mantle of a haunted war veteran, when the audiences are more accustomed to a teenage web-slinger’s quips and acrobatics than riveting acting chops. 

Fortunately, Holland proves he’s an A-lister capable of more than just superhero sagas. From choked sobs in nightmare-fueled slumber to the hollow gaze of a trembling, sweat-drenched bank robber suffering from withdrawal, Holland’s performance is impressively convincing and heartbreaking. 

Deployed in Iraq and mired in the territory known as the “Triangle of Death,” Cherry’s helplessness is palpable in Holland’s wide-eyed shock and clench-jawed grief. He becomes another expendable pawn for a disputable cause in a controversial war, relying on sheer luck to stay alive. 

Upon his return to the United States, in a gymnasium reverberating with applause, Holland’s Cherry looks dead in the eyes of filmgoers as he tells us, “My one true accomplishment was not dying — and really I had nothing to do with it.” 

Awarded with empty valor, a veteran Cherry is tossed casually back into normalcy, expected to work, sleep and function normally when he has returned broken and numb, an empty shell of who he once was — all while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A gripping scene shows Cherry’s desperation and rage. Stabbing himself repeatedly in the thigh with a hypodermic needle used for frequent heroin injections, Cherry tries to feel something besides the drugged emptiness he has succumbed to. 

While Holland’s capabilities are demonstrated in full, the directors of “Cherry” fall short in their pursuit for the status of a Scorsese-esque auteur. Known for their mega-hit “Avengers: Endgame,” the Russo brothers seem to want to prove their directorial worth by taking on Walker’s operatic life story — a sprawling American epic about war, the opioid crisis and gun-wielding violence. It is serious material that Martin Scorsese himself would recognize as cinema. (The Oscar-winning director has argued that Marvel superhero movies, several of which were helmed by the Russo brothers, aren’t cinema.) 

But, at the heart of Walker’s journey of recovery and self-realization, redemption does not come easily. He constantly agonizes over actions taken despite moral conflict: The unarmed man he gunned down, the suspected Iraqi homes he broke into and the bank tellers he terrorized. These traumatic sequences are caught on repeat in Walker’s head, as he questions what is right and wrong and scrutinizes the gray between black and white. The film hardly explores this punishing emotional process. 

When the clamorous, adrenaline-pumped episodes of bank robberies come to an end, the self-reflective stillness of Cherry’s 11-year prison sentence is not addressed. Instead, a montage with no dialogue is shown in the epilogue of the film. It is apparent that Cherry’s life gradually improves as he emerges from his dependence on drugs and grows a mustache. He is then released, walking toward a golden sunset and a beaming wife. In this use of silent montage, the last — and arguably most significant — stretch of character growth is disappointingly hurried through. 

Moreover, the two hour, 20 minute film could benefit from a shorter runtime. Several hyper-stylized scenes and the excessive swells of Puccini and Verdi could be cut down, and some characters — somewhat pointless in a filmic abbreviation of a much lengthier novel — do not need to be there. 

The fact that “Cherry” is chaptered — abridged into chopped-up pieces — does little but simply distract from earnest storytelling. Still, the cast, particularly Holland, tries its best. With this muddled cinematic interpretation of Nico Walker’s debut novel, one may be better off reading the literary work instead. 


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