‘Cherry’ Spirals Into a Bloated Junkie Saga but Tom Holland Delivers

Cherry” gets overloaded telling what should be a fairly simple, direct story. It’s based on the acclaimed novel by Nico Walker, who turned his experiences as a combat medic in Iraq and subsequent opioid addiction into gritty fiction. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo turn the movie version into a long, oddball experiment in shallow style. They seem to think that because audiences made their “Avengers: Endgame” the top-grossing movie of all time at 3 hours, they’ll rush to sit through every elongated idea they conjure. Thus “Cherry” clocks in 2 hours and 20 minutes, splashing drugs, war, and more drugs. Enduring the film with us is Tom Holland, who is the best thing about this whole enterprise. He takes advantage of the material to shed away the Spider-Man costume and deliver a painful, grown-up performance trapped inside a most immature ride.

Holland is Cherry, which is the only name we get for his main character, a Cleveland misfit we first meet in 2002. Life so far hasn’t offered much except deadbeat relatives, a high school girlfriend obviously sleeping with multiple guys while going to college and doing the long distance thing. While attending community college Cherry meets Emily (Ciara Bravo), a fellow outsider who hates her father and also seems aimless. They fall in love and she nearly leaves for Canada because, well, love scares her, or something. But they hastily get married and to make a living Cherry joins the army just as the Iraq war heats up. After the rigors of basic training to become a combat medic, Cherry comes face to face with the camaraderie and horrors of the war, losing friends in the process. Upon returning to Cleveland, Cherry struggles with PTSD, depicted as lots of shaking, and soon gets hooked on opioids. Enraged at his downward spiral, Emily starts taking the drugs too and before long, they’re junkies. Once cash runs out Cherry decides the only option left is to rob banks, but with a light touch that assures no one gets hurt. This, of course, can only last for so long.

There is a difference between sincere epics and bloated commercial products. “Cherry” tries to bridge the gap between both and the result is a mixed bag that can lack rhyme or reason. The Russos, having achieved mass success with Marvel, are now on that tricky pedestal where they can do whatever they want. As their first Apple TV production, this movie has the feel of a project where nobody gave the directors any editorial notes. They seem to be in love with slow motion panning shots, some that can seem endless like a tour through a frat party where Cherry’s high school sweetheart flirts with everyone and dances on a table, or continuous shots of Cherry walking down his neighborhood. Equipped with limitless resources, the movie looks very good with great wide shots and expensive cinematography. The Russos can afford to switch from cloudy Cleveland to scorching Iraqi deserts. And they deserve credit for not packing the Iraq scenes with mindless action. Here they use violence to try and emit a bit of the actual grotesque reality of combat, as when Cherry sits staring at a friend’s charred corpse in a blown out Humvee. 

But for such a long movie “Cherry” feels very empty and more like a series of episodes. Ironically enough, the Russos, who brought flashes of real sensitivity to their “Avengers” films, can’t seem to grasp how to find the depths in what should be a more realistic narrative. Instead Cherry’s journey has the feel precisely of a bad comic book, where events take place for the sake of entertainment, and drugs are just a gimmick. Even the period feel is lacking. For whatever reason directors keep scoring movies to ‘70s hits, and so the Russos seem to be pulling off a bad imitation of Martin Scorsese instead of using the actual sounds of the Bush era, like post-grunge rock or rap-metal. What the movie lacks the most is more sincerity. Cherry is just going through a lot of plot motions. He meets a girl who is just as detached from society as him, he goes through a basic training experience that is a pale imitation of “Full Metal Jacket,” then he sees war, and returns a broken guy who shakes and squirms at night. But the Russos have nothing to say about Cherry’s world or even the Iraq war. It’s almost like a fake addiction drama, where all of it serves as plot devices and nothing more. We are still waiting for a real war film to capture that generation that went to Iraq, like what “Platoon” did for the Vietnam generation.

Back in Cleveland, Cherry and Emily spiral into the quintessential junkie routine with endless scenes of them popping pills, shooting up, shooting up with their friends and eventually getting a drug dealer friend in trouble when they snort and down his entire stash. Terms of heroin and OxyContin are thrown around like candy. The more intriguing angle of this section, which could have been used for a livelier, edgier story, involves Cherry going on his bank robbing spree. There’s some insightful dark humor in how he informs us that most bank clerks will quietly hand you over the money if you don’t make a fuss, since the cash is insured and they’d rather not risk violence. Cherry’s technique involves sliding a dollar bill with a message in red marker warning a robbery is taking place. But this is the most wasted of the film’s many storylines. A few quick heist scenes just lead us right back to more monotonous drug use.

For Tom Holland this is at least a chance for him to show off his darker shades and more serious tones. Famous for being Spider-Man, he goes through the kind of visual transformation Leonardo DiCaprio pulled off in “The Basketball Diaries,” where he played punk poet Jim Carroll in the throes of heroin addiction. Holland’s military scenes are much of what we usually expect from him, likeable and very teenage. But the junkie sequences find him constantly dealing with leaking fluids, cold sweats and losing his sense of reality. Holland rises above the superficial screenplay and conjures some empathy through how he physically makes Cherry come to life. This movie is like a demo reel for what he could do in a much stronger drama. 

“Cherry” is premiering in select cities before landing on Apple TV in March. It’s hard to imagine risking the lingering pandemic to sit through its big running time. As a streaming option it offers the choice of watching it in sections, and indeed, the movie is divided into chapters that inform us it’s 2002, then 2005, and finally 2021, when Cherry has finally grown a mustache. While the Russos should be commended for trying something dramatic and fact-based, after bringing to life superheroes and galactic warlords, they also risk falling into a classic trap of blockbuster hubris. Like Christopher Nolan’s recent “Tenet,” this is a movie that feels big for its own sake, like a director saying, “Look at how much I can spend.” But a story like “Cherry” works better when it produces the frightening adrenaline rush of its setting, where history and addiction collide. This story has something to say, the movie just takes forever to get to the point and never gets there.

Cherry” releases Feb. 26 in select cities and begins streaming March 12 on Apple TV+.