It's just not goddamn fair, sometimes - Edge of Tomorrow is already a bona fide box office flop, and this despite being the most effortlessly pleasurable summer popcorn movie I've seen in... oh, well, a couple of years, at least.

Maybe "effortlessly" isn't the right word, not at all. Edge of Tomorrow is, in fact, a movie of very considerable effort, and very good effort too. It's a stark standout in the summer movie landscape, a reminder that the best kind of idiot fun comes from a place of very pointed intention, snug filmmaking, purposeful writing and acting, and above all the asking of one question that seems to be not merely ignored but actively scorned. The question that seems to have animated director Doug Liman, and the screenwriters adapting Sakurazaka Hiroshi's novel All You Need Is Kill (credit is given to Christopher McQuarrie and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth; I don't believe for a second that they're the only people involved) is not, "How much information can I throw at the audience?" but "How much information must I throw at the audience?" and the construction of everything from the exposition to the finale to the big noisy action setpieces is driven by a ruthless economy. The film's content isn't any different than a jillion other CGI brawlers, really, but the presentation of that content is so exquisitely clean, so confident that the audience can keep up without the filmmakers holding our hand through every plot development, and so interested in using all the tools of 21st Century big budget filmmaking to create a Ripping Good Yarn as persuasively and fully possible, that it's far more rewarding as broad entertainment and as an emotional investment than virtually anything else that gets released these days. And that's without even touching on the fact that it has for-real interesting characters - not interesting because they are models of harsh psychological realism, but because they're distinct enough to be enjoyable company in the context of a frothy action-adventure that is wholly divorced from anything that even the most generous among us might term "realism".

It's a colossal dumb summer action movie, basically, but one which is single-mindedly devoted to being the best such animal that it can be. And if these means that, by inches, it shades into being not so very dumb as all that, it's a nice bonus; more to the point, it's damn fun in a way that most messy, over-serious, marketing-friendly tentpole films don't get to be. This is old-school Hollywood entertainment: disciplined as balls, deferential to the artistic function of movie star power but not reliant on it, and aware that the audience's favor has to be earned through coherent, interesting storytelling, not by cashing in on brand names.

The story, as everyone who cares knows by now, is Groundhog Day Versus Aliens: sometime in the future, an asteroid crashes in Germany, spawning a race of horrifying shadow-tentacle beasts called by the humans who encounter then Mimics (since it's impossible to really talk about Edge of Tomorrow without bringing up video games, I'll start now: the Mimics more than superficially resemble the shadow world monsters in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, a GameCube title that was released in 2004, and fuck, I'm old). After at least a couple of years, the Mimics have taken over all of Europe, leaving Britain as the central base for any and all attempts by humanity to fight back. The film is particularly concerned with a last-ditch assault on the beaches of France, where victory means a vital toehold and failure means the functional end of the war. The fact that the film obliquely remakes D-Day doesn't bother me; the fact that its U.S. release was on the 71st anniversary of D-Day kind of does, but that's hardly germane to anything.

All of this is communicated in a breezy, wonderful blast of exposition that recalls the opening of Pacific Rim: a collage of new reports and talking head interviews with General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), leader of the anti-Mimic forces, and Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), the American marketing expert whose job is to encourage able-bodied warriors to strap themselves into the metal exoskeleton battle suits that are the front line weapon in the war. It's quick, it's definitive, it introduces the fast-witted tone that will dominate the movie, and best of all, it gets us to good stuff quickly. Basically, Cage is going to be embedded with a force on the beach, and he doesn't want that at all, so he attempts to blackmail his way out of it. Brigham is so incensed by this, apparently - there's a baffling lack of clarity in motivation here, but we need to start the plot and contrivances that occur in the wind up tend to be less bothersome than elsewhere - that he has Cage drugged and shanghaied, identified as a deserting private, and placed in the hands of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), who enthusiastically identifies the aging, clearly incompetent Cage as the dead meat who'll learn a lesson the hardest way during combat. And this happens, though Cage puts in a minutely good showing, managing to blow up a particularly large, blue glowing Mimic in a desperate act of suicide. He survives just long enough for the dying creature to bleed into his mouth, and then he dies.

And then he wakes up at the exact moment that he regained consciousness after the general's dirty trick, the day before the doomed invasion, and he watches with dreadful confusion as events replay themselves exactly, from the tiniest human gestures to the course of the bloody battle.

Edge of Tomorrow borrows its structure from a video game, as everyone has said, but with a little twist: it's not that it apes the narrative flow of a game, but it apes the real-world act of playing a game. It is, basically, about working through an almost unwinnable level with a single respawn point and infinite lives: the player has to study patterns and work out the exact timing to interact with them, frequently dying and having to start aaaaaall the way back at the beginning, but slowly inching through one trap after another. If that's as far as it went, the film would just have a really swell gimmick, but to its enduring credit, the movie only uses that gimmick as a hook and a pretext for doing what it actually cares about, which is staging violent battle scenes in a playful, damn near jokey register, with the background knowledge that Cage will just keep coming back keeping letting us enjoy the virtually unheard-of pleasure of an action hero whose primary characteristic is his limitless ability to fuck up. Herein, a movie that gets a big laugh - among its many pleasing characteristics, Edge of Tomorrow ends up being terrifically funny - from an offscreen yelp and thump as its hero gets run over by a truck.

There's a lot of subversion on that level: the first battle finds Cruise looking terrified as he sweats buckets, a most un-star sort of look to adopt, and it really sharpened my awareness of how game an actor Cruise is. Of course, the whole thing drifts towards a hero's narrative: the point of replaying levels in a video game is to get better, so by the end of the film, Cage turns out to be a real badass, and the way that he's framed within the repeating set-ups and shots does a lot to sell that as an exciting thing, not a tedious one (the moment when he finally lands on the beach in an upright position is one of the most rousing "that's so cool!" moments I've seen all summer).

Liman manages this all with a firm, direct hand, though the film's MVPs are probably editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings, whose staccato rhythms drive the pace, comedy, and action with a bright, can-you-keep-up clip, and who end the movie just a few frames earlier than seems comfortable, thus wrapping it up with a nicely kinetic feeling and smartly leaving the final character beat unresolved, so the film ends with a sense of momentum and promise, but not exhaustive overanalysis. It's a final ellipsis in a movie that has done remarkable things by exploiting such things: if there's one truly brilliant, maybe even radical element to the way the film is built, it's that Liman & Co. set up the way that Cage's power works - that is, the way he uses it, via trial and error, to perfect his actions - and then rely on our knowledge that he can to that to skip back and forth through shortcuts. We don't need to see the connective tissue, only the big moments, and that means that Edge of Tomorrow is comprised almost solely of wallops - either in terms of action, which is grandly staged with whirling, madcap CGI choreography, or in terms of some unexpected character beats. One moment in particular, between Cruise's cage and Emily Blunt's Sergeant Rita Vritanski (who enters the film late enough, and in a way that I am loath to spoil, that I've deliberately not mentioned her - suffice it to say that Blunt is an AMAZING action star, and while everything she does in the movie is great, I still kind of feel that the movie doesnt do nearly enough with her. But that is mostly because she is great, and I am a longtime Blunt junkie), uses the trick of implicit storytelling that the film has refined so well to suggest a sweet, almost tragic bit of character psychology that's surprisingly real and sad for such a boisterous, rollicking good time, giving the film unexpected but very welcome depth.

Being as it is ultimately a broad, sweeping adventure, Edge of Tomorrow has its flaws, most notably a final act that's a bit more generic in its action beats and narrative details than the rest of the film (the very ending is also a bit contentious, though it's so emotionally right with everything else that has happened, that I'd be devastated to lose it). But everything that has gone on till that point is so exceptional, it would have taken a hell of a lot more for the movie to even start to lose me. The movie as a whole is so trim and focused, making both the high-level action and the details around the edges more alive and energetic than in nearly any comparable movie of recent vintage, that an outright collapse of any momentum or intelligence in the last 30 minutes still couldn't harsh the buzzy fun of the first 75. Perfect cinema it's not, but perfect populist adventure storytelling... it's still not, but in 2014, it's the closest we've come in a good long while.