Cherry review: Tom Holland reunites with Russo Brothers for a film that’s difficult to stomach

Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo in “Cherry,” now streaming on Apple TV+. Copyright © 2021 Apple Inc. All rights reserved.
Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo in “Cherry,” now streaming on Apple TV+. Copyright © 2021 Apple Inc. All rights reserved. /

Tom Holland sheds his “pretty boy”  Spider-Man persona to play a drug-addicted bank robber in Cherry, directed by the Russo brothers. Famed filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo are known for their work shaping the Marvel Cinematic Universe with films like Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.

The pair handpicked Holland to portray a shell-shocked Iraq War vet who self-medicates with heroin in the new Apple TV+ original film. The army combat medic turns to a life of crime after suffering from severe trauma, depression and PTSD. Cherry is based on the semi-autobiographical best-selling novel inspired by the life of Nico Walker.

Walker was reportedly paid $1 million dollars for the option to bring his dramatic story to the screen. He was eventually caught for his crimes and served an 11-year prison sentence until he was released early to care for his ailing mother. The Russo brothers grew up in Ohio and were drawn to showing the harrowing experience that Holland referred to as “Dope Life” when talking to his Avengers co-star Robert Downey Jr. during an Apple TV+ Q&A session.

Cleveland Ohio symbolizes the American heartland that has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and is a character in the film. The term “Cherry” is a metaphor for the lead character’s loss of innocence after he falls in love and serves in the Iraq War.

Cherry tells a coming-of-age story told in chapters

Cherry unfolds in six different chapters covering its protagonist’s coming-of-age journey from boyhood to young adulthood. ASC-nominated cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, spoke to IndieWire about the process of making a movie that is divided into chapters.

“It’s all one story, but it’s a series of chapters that were all bringing the character from one place to a very, very different place at the end. It was almost like you were talking about six different films,” Sigel said. The whole film was shot on a Sony Venice, but the DP utilized different Todd AO lenses including anamorphic glass to change the look in each stage of the character’s life.

We are introduced to Cherry as a twitchy and sweaty bank robber who holds up a string of frightened female bank tellers. He provides exposition throughout the movie by breaking the fourth wall, looking at the camera, and using voice-over narration. This technique tends to constantly break us out of the narrative and prevents us from fully connecting with all of the characters.

“We didn’t have a hook on how to tell it until we thought of Tom for it. We thought of Tom very early for it,” Joe Russo stated during a panel. “This is very dark material.”

“You don’t want the audience intellectualizing the movie,” he added. “They tend to do that when something is too powerful, too emotional, and too intense. They tend to push it away and study it instead of emotionally invest in it.”

But that is exactly what happens to us because Cherry is unfocused and doesn’t immediately manage to make us care about this young man’s plight. George Clooney’s handsome bumbling bank robber draws us in within the first scene of Steven Soderbergh’s masterful Out of Sight, but that isn’t the case here.

A long, cinematic journey through Cherry’s past

We flashback to see how Cherry’s trouble began while he was working minimum-wage jobs until he falls in love with Emily, played by Nickelodeon star Ciara Bravo. Their love story is shot like a surreal dream sequence with soft diffused lighting. But Cherry panics when Emily threatens to break up with him and quickly enlists in the military for a two-year stint.

His time in boot camp kicks off with a shot of a dimly lit bumpy and cavernous landscape. We aren’t sure exactly what we are seeing until we are shown this is Cherry’s military rectal exam. The wide shot reveals him bending over as a doctor flashes a light on the opening of his anal area.

The cinematic experience is impressive and flashy as the mise-en-scène alternates between theatrical and naturalistic. I enjoyed the attention to detail in the boot camp scenes and felt like I had entered Iraq via the Moroccan shooting location. Military life and the dialogue between Cherry rings true with his army colleagues. I saw the inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and the Sam Mendes adaptation of Jarhead. The Russos are adept at creating a sweeping, epic look to the film but the two-hour and 20-minute runtime makes this feel way too long.

The flashy look of the movie is punctuated by a red color motif throughout to symbolize the title. When Holland’s character returns home from Iraq, he begins experimenting with recreational drugs like Xanax before sampling OxyContin. He makes a visit to the doctor, where he is asked, “Have you ever heard of OxyContin?”  The doctor writes a prescription, and Cherry’s downward spiral continues until his love story includes his wife joining him in a joint quest to always get high. The section titled “Dope Life” is the hardest to watch because there are so many depressing and jarring scenes.

A new experience for Tom Holland

Holland appreciated the opportunity to stretch his acting range by doing whatever he could to change his glossy image. During an Academy Q&A panel, the actor said:

"“Growing up in the business and making films there is a level of vanity to everything that you do as an actor. There is that when you go back and watch the monitor and you go. Hmmm…I’m not sure I like my hair or I’m not sure I like my makeup. That’s just natural. That is just the way human beings are, but in this film especially, we completely threw that out the window. It was like the uglier that I can look the better. It was so freeing.And it has totally changed my perspective on the way I make films and the way I think about my appearance. It has given me this freedom to feel more comfortable. It was such an amazing experience being able to say to my makeup artist. The uglier I look and the more skinny and the scarier I look the better.”"

And Holland doesn’t look anything like the polished boy next door when he is injecting heroin with his wife and covered in unsightly sores. Some scenes are so graphic that Cherry is shown vomiting blood and explaining that his heroin addiction is causing him to bleed from his nether region. This makes the entire experience even harder to endure.

Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and Gus Van Sant’s Drug Store Cowboy inject humor and stylistic camera angles to help their plot to move along. We feel bogged down under the weight of what we are bombarded with, including one scene where Cherry repeatedly and violently stabs his leg with a  hypodermic needle until blood gushes out. You are fully aware that you are watching a performance unlike Zendaya’s Emmy award-winning role as a drugged-out teen on Euphoria.

“As an actor, I am always looking for something that scares me. I am looking for something that pushes me. A role like Cherry is an actor’s dream. I get a chance to play six different versions of the same character within the same body,” Tom Holland stated.

A cast of unlikable characters

The viewer will want to hop off this ride, however,  because the only character name that gave me a little chuckle was “Pills and Coke” played by Transformers actor Jack Reynor. But this guy was despicable, too. There is one cringeworthy scene where he tries to inject drugs into someone who is intellectually disabled as a joke. This is beyond awful to see.

We need to like someone if we are following them along to rob banks while financing their drug habit. I was baffled with how long the unmasked bandit was able to commit crimes without being caught. I am glad that Holland got the opportunity to undergo an acting exercise in his post-MCU venture, but some things are just too intense to witness.

Cherry is not for anyone who has a weak stomach because it brings you all the way down. You are not tuning in to a sweet bubblegum tale about true love.

“It’s different because when you are doing a Spider-Man movie or an Avengers movie, the pressure comes from the already knowing that millions of people will watch this film,” Holland stated. “And millions of people already have an agenda and an idea of how the film should be made and how the character should be portrayed. The different level of pressure in this film is that we are trying to make a film so that millions of people will watch it. We don’t know that at the beginning, It’s about finding the ways in which we can tell this story that is so brutal and so hard to watch in a truthful way while also making it a form of entertainment and a form of education.”

I beg to differ when director Joe Russo tries to convince us that we are tuning in for a whole other flick:

"“This is a modern love story. The movie is many things. It is in many different genres. It goes a lot of places. But ultimately what ties it all together is this very powerful love story about two people who go through this terrible life cycle and come out on the other side with hope.”"

This isn’t true at all because the ending is unsatisfying, too. We are only shown a montage without any dialogue at all. It was one of the strangest things that I have ever seen. There is not enough chemistry between the romantic leads to redeem this tangled tale.

(Did I mention that opera music was thrown in the score, too, like a needless homage to GoodFellas? Don’t get distracted by watching the late James Gandolfini’s son have a small cameo. We are not captivated viewing a charming junkie grifter like we were with Leonardo DiCaprio’s star turn as a loveable young con artist in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.)

Cherry may look sugary and sweet but don’t let your Spidey senses fool you after seeing Tom Holland. He is not Peter Parker. This movie is a bitter pill that will make you wish that you reclaimed your time and never had the curiosity to sample it.

Next. Chaos Walking: Holland and Ridley can't save this film. dark

Cherry is currently streaming on Apple TV+.