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'Cherry' review: Ambitious, topical drama underwhelms

Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo in "Cherry."

Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo in "Cherry."  Credit: Apple TV+

PLOT An Iraq War veteran turns to robbing banks to support his drug addiction.

CAST Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor

RATED R (violence, drug use, language)


WHERE Streaming on Apple TV+

BOTTOM LINE An ambitious and topical drama, though its point is far from clear.

"Cherry," a saga of war, drug addiction, crime and death, is probably the least likely movie to be spun out of the Marvel machine. It’s not officially part of the MCU, but you could call it Marvel-adjacent: Its star is Tom Holland, better known as Spider-Man, and its directors are Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers whose Marvel blockbusters include the Avengers finales "Infinity War" and "Endgame." These three surely view "Cherry" as a chance to break out of their career molds before they become permanently set.

On that front, "Cherry" may succeed. It’s a bit of a shock to see Holland, so closely identified with the fresh-faced Peter Parker, playing the title role, a pill-zonked teenager drifting through the Ohio suburbs. Floppy-haired and frail, Cherry radiates a poetic sensitivity and deep self-loathing – the perfect ingredients for a future addict. It’s a strong performance from Holland, who convincingly morphs from aimless kid to Iraq War medic to desperate criminal. Early in the film, when Cherry falls for a college classmate, Emily (a delicate Ciara Bravo), we want to tell her to run.

The Russos, who helped perfect the art of the Marvel superhero-action-ensemble-comedy, seem unsure how to approach this weighty material. They opt for high stylization, breaking the film into chapters that feel like movies-in-miniature. The segment titled "Basic" recalls the terrifying Army training sequences in "Full Metal Jacket," while "Dope Life" recalls the icky junkie hijinks of "Trainspotting." (Jack Reynor plays an amiable drug-dealer named Pills & Coke.) Meanwhile, our hero narrates nearly non-stop and sometimes speaks to the camera in the middle of urgent situations. The overall effect is uncertain, a hodgepodge of moods, tones and attitudes. Touches of postmodern sarcasm – every bank Cherry robs has a name that is satirically generic, impossibly crass or anti-American – sit oddly in a movie that otherwise strives for sincerity.

Based on a novel by Nico Walker, "Cherry" strives to be ultra-contemporary, a story of opioids and PTSD in the wake of a politically tainted war. But the bitter humor, sprawling narrative and classic-rock soundtrack (Van Morrison, Mountain) seem inspired by counterculture cinema-nuggets like "M*A*S*H*," "Slaughterhouse Five" and "O! Lucky Man." The desire to make a big statement is here, but what that statement is remains unclear. "Cherry" may underwhelm, but Holland and the Russos at least deserve credit for reaching beyond the summer blockbuster.

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