Jack Reacher is back. And no one seems to know why. 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.
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 subtitle: “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.
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, too: 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. 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.