The Russo brothers’ first post-Avengers film is a mixture of too many styles and too little substance

By: Steve Pulaski

We’ve been exposed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe long enough to know how the formula goes for most directors: they spend years working behind the scenes, direct a successful, comparatively low-budget feature or two, and then the lucky few get tapped to make their blockbuster debut. Ryan Coogler went from Fruitvale Station to Black Panther. Scott Derrickson made the leap from Sinister to Doctor Strange. Even Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts began humbly with Clown and Cop Car.

Here we have Cherry, Anthony and Joe Russo’s latest film. Maybe you’ve heard of their movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame to name a few. Sure, they began with Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me & Dupree, but they’ve been so ingrained in the MCU that those pictures might as well be fleeting memories. Cherry could reasonably be considered their first feature removed from the hulking, spandex-clad umbrella that is Marvel. And it’s a mess. A watchable mess. But a hot mess express indeed.

Adapted from Nico Walker’s novel of the same name (screenplay written by Angela Russo-Otstot, Anthony and Joe’s sister, and Jessica Goldberg), the film revolves around a nameless Cleveland native (Tom Holland). “Cherry” is the closest thing to a name he receives. He falls in love with his college classmate Emily (Ciara Bravo) at first sight, works odd-jobs for menial pay, and without many options, joins the Army as a medic ostensibly on a whim. He’s put through the grueling grind of basic training, witnesses unspeakable atrocities, and is sent back home a broken man. He quickly becomes dependent on Xanax, Oxy, and booze, soon upgrading to a crippling heroin addiction, roping in Emily over time.

His addiction reaches new heights almost every day. Desperation strikes when he binges on a safe full of pills and money he was supposed to traffic for a dealer named Black (a shadowy, guttural Daniel R. Hill, who might as well be Thanos). It’s then Cherry turns to robbing banks in part to pay off debts but mostly to fuel the couple’s insatiable fix. The real-life Walker apparently robbed 11 banks over a four-month period; he was eventually apprehended and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Walker wrote Cherry while incarcerated (nobly using some of the profits to pay back the banks he robbed) and was released in 2019.

Walker’s memoir is a part of a new wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans writing about their experiences and hardships in Bukowski-esque prose. It apparently details war and PTSD with a grim frankness. The Russo brothers’ Cherry made me want to read the book, in part because as occasionally arresting as the film is, the duo and their oppressive style can’t get out of the way and let the narrative do its job.

Exhausting with incessant narration, the film dogpiles on-screen graphics, fourth-wall breaks, and unnecessary canted angles onto an already dense drama. And this is just the first hour. Of course also punctuated by chapter breaks, the overlong 140-minute feature sort of finds its way in chapter four, aptly titled “Dope Fiends.” Yet when this happens, it becomes abundantly clear that the Russo’s are far more compelled to gawk at the sickening tragedies happening to our characters than offer commentary on the opioid epidemic, the military industrial complex, or the appalling lack of aid to American veterans.

Compounding the frustrating emptiness is the pop filmmaking sensibilities at hand. Holland’s nameless character breaks the fourth wall frequently, often narrating what we’re already seeing unfold. Tongue-in-cheek background details — such as “SHITTYBANK” instead of “Citibank,” or a “DR. WHOMEVER” nameplate on the desk of a counselor — aren’t well integrated into the world. It all feels overdirected. Most infuriating is the epilogue where the final 20 minutes feels longer than the preceding two hours. Some things deserve great detail. Holland staging his own dramatic demise doesn’t.

Nevertheless, Holland is strong, proving he can anchor even a seriously flawed feature with great conviction. Also impressive is Ciara Bravo, who can illuminate a room with her energy and elegance even when she’s doped beyond belief. The chemistry the two manage to muster is quite believable. If the Russo’s style apexes here, it’s when Bravo’s Emily arrives home to her strung-out husband, shaking in need of a needle. Cherry moves to tie her arm and shoot her up — all while lush romantic music plays in the background. It’s quite bizarre to say the least, but it’s one of the few times Henry Jackman’s domineering, Hans Zimmer-lite score is effective.

Cherry is what you could call a “Monet movie:” good from far, far from good. It recalls Pain & Gain without the fun and Thank You for Your Service minus the greater commentary. The Russo brothers have repeatedly asserted the movie is about the opiate epidemic. That statement nearly comes off as farcical given the second act’s desire to bask in the mayhem that is the life of a junkie chasing the next temporarily satisfying rush. The entirety of a director’s career should never be judged exclusively on one movie, but Cherry suggests the Russo brothers are better producers than directors.

NOTE: Cherry is now available to stream on Apple TV+.

Grade: C-

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