Producers: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Mike Larocca, Jonathan Gray, Matthew Rhodes, Jake Aust and Chris Castaldi   Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo   Screenplay: Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg   Cast: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Jeff Wahlberg, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, Thomas Lennon, Daniel R. Hill and Damon Wayans Jr.   Distributor: Apple+

Grade: C+

Both Tom Holland, certainly best known as the current movie Spider-Man, and the fraternal directorial team of Anthony and Joe Russo, who helmed four of big Marvel superhero flicks, had good reason to collaborate on this adaptation of Nico Walker’s 2018 semi-autobiographical novel: all were seeking to demonstrate their more serious side, to stretch as it were.  “Cherry” works for one of them.

That’s Holland, who plays Walker’s surrogate, called only Cherry, in the epic-length saga of a young Ohio man who joins the army after his college sweetheart Emily (Ciara Bravo) abruptly breaks off their relationship in order to go study in Montreal.  Though she immediately reconsiders and they marry, he’s already committed himself, and goes through a brutal basic training before being shipped off to Iraq, where he endures a horrifying tour as a medic. 

On his return, he’s at a loss.  Emily has waited for him, but he’s suffering from PTSD and becomes addicted first to opioids, and then to heroin.  Angry over their collapsing life, she follows suit, and their constant need for a fix leads him to crime—specifically bank robbery.  After Emily nearly overdoses and he falls deeply in debt to his suppliers, he effectively surrenders after one last job to pay off his creditors, and undergoes a hopeful change during his years in prison, with Emily going through rehab and awaiting him on his release. 

Holland is successful in capturing the arc of Cherry’s transformation from awkward kid to jealous lover, and then from nervous recruit to hardened soldier.  He also proves convincing in tracing the character’s descent into rage and addiction in the film’s latter stages, and even almost pulls off his hopped-up goofiness as a crook.  The young actor’s work should come as no surprise: since his feature debut in “The Impossible” in 2012, he’s done remarkably consistent and effective work.  Bravo makes a good match for him too, although, particularly in the early stages, she’s presented too often in glamorous, glossy portrait shots, something that  naturally lessens as Emily too slides into addiction.

Her initial depiction, unfortunately is characteristic of the approach of the Russo brothers, who seem so anxious to impress that they overload the movie with visual excess, embracing virtually every artsy touch in the directorial playbook, including plenty of slow-motion sequences, to keep the viewer’s eye engaged.  The extravagance of the technique—which necessarily also involves the work of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, production designer Phil Ivey and editor Jeff Groth—actually detracts from the emotional core of the narrative by insistently calling attention to itself, especially since it often accentuates resemblances to the work of other filmmakers—most notably Kubrick and Scorsese, but also David O. Russell and the Safdies.  The score, which includes much overlaying of pop songs and operatic excerpts as well as the original music by Henry Jackman, is also intrusive in a derivative way.

But the fault doesn’t simply lie in the overactive visuals: it originates in the screenplay, with its over-reliance on  narration (a common failing in films today, but taken to extremes here) and its decision to divide the action in novel-like form into five chapters (along with a prologue and epilogue) and occasionally emblazon words across the screen for spurious impact.  But the direction exacerbates the writing weaknesses rather than minimizing them. 

Nor do the Russos do much with the large supporting cast.  They elicit memorable work from Forrest Goodluck and Jack Reynor, the first as Cherry’s longtime friend and the latter as his rough-edged supplier, but even Damon Wayans Jr. offers little but bulldog bullying as the drill sergeant.  The rest are solid but largely underused.

That’s not to say that “Cherry” should simply be dismissed.  It serves as a showcase for Holland’s talent while telling a timely American story, though overloading it with intrusive technical flourishes that obscure the power rather than enhancing it.