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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back movie review: don’t go back for the sequel

Jack Reacher Never Go Back red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Jack Reacher is back. And no one seems to know why. Low stakes, a rote plot, and undistinguished action add up to a pointless and unnecessary sequel.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Jack Reacher is back. And no one seems to know why.tweet The first filmic installment of the adventures of the former military investigator created by novelist Lee Child rustled up a resounding “meh” at the box office in 2012, and I cannot imagine that anyone who saw it back then could recall a single detail about it today. Other than, perhaps, the fact that star and producer Tom Cruise bears little physical or psychological resemblance to the hulking, laconic man he is in the books. (I haven’t read any of the 20 books in the series. I just know what I hear from fans, and what Wikipedia tells me.) That’s not necessarily a problem, unless that is the most notable thing about a movie. Which it was. In my review back then, I likened Jack Reacher to a midseason episode of a made-for-cable detective show that you’d never heard of… and you hadn’t heard of it, the implication went, it wasn’t very good, because there’s a lot of truly excellent TV happening these days, and it’s all buzzy. Jack Reacher is the opposite of buzzy.

If Jack Reacher was a midseason episode of a made-for-cable detective show, Never Go Back is the episode to convince you the show was about to be cancelled.

And yet here we have a second movie that no one was demanding: not those who saw the first movie, not fans of the books. These movies are vanity projects for Cruise (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Edge of Tomorrow), and as one of the few genuine movie stars left, someone whose face and name guarantees butts in seats (at least initially), Cruise gets what he wants. His name and his undeniable onscreen charisma — which remains significant — will bring in an audience. They will leave disappointed, I suspect. If Jack Reacher was a forgettable episode of a bland TV show that you might just about tolerate if you were flipping around in the middle of an insomniac night, Never Go Back is the episode that would convince you the show was about to be cancelled, rightfully so, and that no one would miss it.

This time, Reacher stumbles onto what looks like a big crime within the US Army itself, something to do with, maybe, decommissioned weapons from Afghanistan being sold on the black market. So he teams up with Major Susan Turner (the awesome Cobie Smulders [The Intervention, Avengers: Age of Ultron], underutilized here), who now runs the military police investigation unit that Reacher himself once headed up, to look into it. But as she notes, black-market profits are small potatoes compared to the enormous sums of money to be made in legit government military contracts. (See: War Dogs, not that anyone mentions that movie here; it would have enlivened the proceedings significantly if Never Go Back had even a tenth of that movie’s mojo.) So we end up with a story with surprisingly low stakes for a would-be action blockbuster. This did not need to be the case: Turner’s own unit, Reacher’s former unit, appears to be dirty, and in a more clever movie, it would have been more than enough for them to both be fighting for the integrity and honor of the institution, and for the even higher cause of justice. Except we have no basis for accepting why Reacher wouldn’t suspect Turner of being dirty herself — she is actually in military prison on a charge of treason when he meets her — or why he trusts her. From the beginning, not a lot makes sense here, up to and including the movie’s subtitletweet: “Never Go Back” would appear to be a commentary on Reacher’s returning to the vicinity of his former work, except he clearly did need to go back to repair its good name. And he doesn’t seem to regret it. So I haven’t a clue what the title is supposed to mean.

Cobie Smulders tries her best to escape from the movie, but no one can outrun Tom Cruise in action-hero mode.

Cobie Smulders tries her best to escape from the movie, but no one can outrun Tom Cruise in action-hero mode.tweet

Anyway, to make up for the nonexistent stakes, Never Go Back throws in a 15-year-old girl, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who may or may not be a clone of Anna Paquin and may or may not be the daughter Jack Reacher never knew he had until yet another lazy movie decided that threatening a pretty blond thin young female human person was a good way to motivate a male protagonist to Do the Plot: the bad guys will menace her until Reacher backs down, or gives them information they need (they are not very good at being bad), or whatever is needed to keep the action moving. This is a cinematic cliché that is long past its expiration date, but Jack Reacher 2 will indulge it anyway. Like the previous installment, the movie attempts to have its feminist cake and reduce its female characters to crumbs, tootweet: it will let Turner tell Reacher he’s a “dick” for being such a pig to her — which he is — but her brains and competence will be shown up by Reacher’s every time. (Oh, and this is fun: The story opens with Reacher having just saved some vulnerable women from being sex-trafficked. This is the hot new rescue fantasy. It’s good to know that a terrible thing that happens to real women in the real world is being used not as a vehicle with which to tell important and untold women’s stories but as a way to advance the stories of men’s personal journeys.)

Even the filmmakers don’t seem to know why they were bothering to bring back Jack Reacher. Director Edward Zwick (Pawn Sacrifice, Defiance) — reteaming with Cruise for the first time since 2003’s The Last Samurai which was not a high creative point for either man — has abandoned the one small bit of cleverness of the first movie, which served as a preemptive response to those who questioned Cruise’s fit in the role. Jack Reacher made a virtue and a joke of the idea that a small man — as Cruise’s Reacher is — might use the size of big opponents against them in a hand-to-hand fight. There’s nothing like that here. There’s no shaking up of action-movie tropes at all. A tired plot might be redeemed by riveting action sequences, but it’s all shockingly rote and tired here.

There isn’t anything here that isn’t lazy.

There isn’t anything here that isn’t lazy. Presenting this film in IMAX, as I saw it, is an insult to audiences: there’s nothing visually spectacular here to warrant paying a premium price for a ticket; there isn’t even anything remotely visually interesting. If you stumble across this on Netflix six months from now, it will try your patience even if you’re only half watching it. As something worth your full attention on a big screen that you’ve paid a lot of money for? No way.

red light 2 stars

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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) | directed by Edward Zwick
US/Can release: Oct 21 2016
UK/Ire release: Oct 20 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, brief bloody moments)

viewed in 2D IMAX
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Having read the books – I delved in because a lot of library users were checking the series out – I can explain the appeal as a macho fantasy of a protagonist who rarely loses his cool, always gets into fights and gets out of them with little muss, always goes outside the bounds of the law to exact justice, and always brings his opponents in each novel to a richly deserved death.

    It’s like Death Wish as a novel series but with more explosions, car chases, and nastier villains.

  • Danielm80

    Sadly, that explains large swaths of U.S. history.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I dunno, i really don’t mind watching Tom Cruise’s vanity projects. I’ll be sad when he finally gives up on them (sometime in 2032).

  • RogerBW

    I don’t remember a great deal about the book – these things aren’t really memorable – but as far as I recall Child’s characterisation it’s much in the tradition of Lawrence Block: there are the Tough Guys, who are the people who matter in the world, and everybody else. In this case one of the Tough Guys happens to be female.

    I recall the book being something of a let-down because for the previous several books Reacher has been trekking across the USA, getting into trouble as he does so, in order to meet Turner, who to him has just been a voice on a phone. And when he does: meh, nothing much happens. At least the film can’t suffer from that problem: it hasn’t had a chance to build up expectations.

  • Stacy Livitsanis

    My biggest eye roll was at the mention of Reacher saving women from being sex-trafficked (not at your review, but that the movie would do that). The only movie I’ve seen to deal with sex-trafficking in a way that is wholly focused on women’s experience, isn’t exploitative and has a powerful feminist consciousness, is Coline Serreau’s amazing 2001 film Chaos. Give that a chance rather than support more mediocrity like this.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I think I’ve discovered how a sequel to the financially lackluster first film got funded. In the post credits (which itself is interesting), two additional companies are listed: Huahua Film & Media Culture, and Shanghai Productions. Huahua notably provided funding for Star Trek Beyond.

  • RogerBW

    I’ve seen some other reviews suggesting that the particularly mindless degree of action seen here is characteristic of films made primarily for the export market (which these days means China).

  • I can also recommend this year’s Sold and 2013’s Eden for powerful stories about sex trafficking told from women’s perspectives.

  • Yeah, but *lots* of movie are getting cofinanced by Chinese companies these days. I’m not sure there’s any single common denominator among them (beyond an apparent hope that they will appeal to Chinese audiences).

  • Joey-BagaDonuts

    “isn’t exploitative and has a powerful feminist consciousness”

    Why do I care about that kind of thing? It’s just another brainwash.

  • Vinchenzo C

    What a bitch.

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