Nobody wants to be the guy to follow a champion. That was what I thought while watching Cherry, the first film directed by the Russo Brothers since Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the two biggest movies of all-time. Let’s be honest, nothing they did was going to live up to the high expectations fans heap on them, a challenge made more difficult by the inclusion of Avengers star Tom Holland. While the film, a massive, rhapsodic crime epic about a former soldier’s spiral into drugs and robbery, has way too much going on and lacks nuance, it’s also compelling and features Holland’s best non-Marvel role yet.
Loosely based (some would say VERY loose) on the semiautobiographical book by Nico Walker, Cherry is a sweeping, multi-year drama about the emotional impact of war and the opioid crisis, the two going hand-in-hand to destroy one soldier’s life. Cherry (Holland) narrates in flat tone his aimless Ohio existence, beginning in 2002 when he meets Emily (Ciara Bravo), a fellow college student and the supposed love of his life. But these two never actually seem to be on the same page until much later, under awful circumstances. Despite the early stage, they fall in love quickly, but the troubled Emily breaks his heart by saying she wants to attend school in Montreal. In a rash decision, Cherry joins the Army, only for Emily to then backtrack. Stuck in his commitment to the military, Cherry marries Emily, ships out to Iraq as a medic, and sees unimaginable horrors nobody at his tender young age should have to see.
Cherry’s loss of innocence on the battlefield extends to the treatment he receives upon returning home, and that seems to be what the Russos are really driving at. Afflicted with PTSD, Cherry slips into heroin addiction, victim of a system that doesn’t do enough to help its veterans cope. The film hints at different futures for Cherry, and none of them are good. He could end up like the drill sergeants he endured during basic; most of whom are just fucked up in the head and use the military to take out their twisted aggressions. Or perhaps he’ll turn out like the angry Army recruiter, who sweet talks other naive boys to sign away their youth. Or perhaps he’ll end up dead, like some of the friends he knows who enlisted. For Cherry, his drug use eventually ensnares Emily, too, and the once hopeful, fresh-faced couple are filthy, heroin-addicted wrecks who fall into debt with a shady dealer appropriately-named Pills & Coke (played by Jack Reynor).
Whether the Russos were going for their own version of a Scorsese crime epic, it sure seems to be the case with certain beats reminding of Henry Hill’s fall in the final act of Goodfellas. They’re definitely going for “big”, however, with the film broken down into multiple distinct chapters, shifting through different aspect ratios, covering traumatic periods in Cherry’s life. But they’re all traumatic; and that seems to be what the Russos are driving at, to make you feel something through the unflinching depiction of violence and depravity that consumes Cherry and Emily.
To that end, the Russos are quite effective, largely because Holland and Bravo are quite good. Yes, their performances are overwhelmingly earnest, but that’s all part of the deal when you cast actors with such cherubic faces. They both look so young that we just want to take them in our arms and protect them from the world, so to see them robbing banks, shoving dirty needles into their arms, and doing anything to get another hit, it punches us in the gut. Are the Russos being especially subtle here? Absolutely not! They’re trying to hit us where it hurts and it works for the most part. And there’s also just something entertaining about watching a crime spree unfold, even if it has Holland in a really terrible fake mustache. The one drawback of casting Holland is that when Cherry ages he looks like somebody doing a bad Tom Selleck impersonation.
You can’t help but wish Cherry was more than what it is, however. The problem with going big all of the time is that the Russos miss out on the little character moments that make Cherry’s story unique. We know precious little about Cherry and Emily as people, and really only see them relate as drug addicts. My impression is they are two broken people who attract other broken people, and they probably would’ve hit a downward spiral no matter what. It would have been better for Cherry to explore this idea a little bit, if only to provide fuller context to the characters we’re supposed to be investing in.
Cherry opens in theaters on February 26th, before going to Apple TV+ on March 12th.