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)
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Tom Cruise’s latest foray into action, but it wasn’t what Jack Reacher turns out to be. The trailer makes it look like Jason Bourne channeling Martin Riggs, two great movie badasses who would presumably taste great together, but it’s more like a midseason episode of a basic-cable detective show you’ve never heard of. Sure, there’s a multiplex-scaled car chase smack dab in the middle of the flick, and Cruise gets to beat up a buncha assholes all on his lonesome in a funny-awesome punchup (most of which, alas, you’ve seen in the trailer), plus the finale is a standard shootout sequence xeroxed out of every other cop flick, but, yeah: you might stick around to watch this if you were channel surfing in the middle of the night, but it seems like maybe too little to get in exchange for a special trip to The Movies.
The part-of-a-series feel is no accident: Jack Reacher is adapted from one of the so-far 17 novels about the titular character, a former military investigator, written by Lee Child… and it’s one of the books right in the middle. (I haven’t read any of them.) This is not Reacher’s origin story; it’s not his final stand. It’s just, you know, a regular day for him, so to speak. He was a highly decorated supercop — he notes sardonically at one point that on his military cases, all his suspects were trained killers — but now he’s just a drifter, kinda like Bruce Banner wandering the American countryside helping out folk with his superbrain and superstrength. Kinda like being a drifter is a thing. There’s so little at stake for Reacher that it’s sorta hard to figure out why he bothers to hang around to be a character in this story at all, in fact. See, he’s drawn to Pittsburgh after a former soldier he once investigated in Afghanistan is on the news for the shooting spree in which he killed some completely innocent people at random. It happens so regularly in the U.S.*, and Reacher already had this guy pegged as precisely the sort of ex-military nutjob who would do exactly this. And so… I’m not really sure what. Reacher stays in Pittsburgh to help the accused defense attorney run down some evidence because there would be no movie if he didn’t.
This all sucks more than a little because it means that director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote Valkyrie and The Tourist) has to whip up some stakes for Reacher — or has to transfer these lame stakes over from the book unaltered — that involves putting that defense attorney in jeopardy. Oh, didn’t I mention? The defense attorney is a pretty blond (Rosemund Pike [Wrath of the Titans, The Big Year], who is made of awesome, not that she gets to show it here). Lady lawyers are the new damsels in distress, doncha know, allowing a movie to (it believes) have its feminist cake and reduce her to crumbs, too. There’s a hint of possible existential challenge to Reacher here, in the fact that their investigation threatens to suggest that perhaps Reacher isn’t as smart or as prophetic as he thinks he is, but that never comes to anything. Even when Reacher is wrong, it’s still all about reinforcing how brilliant he is.
It’s not all bad. Cruise continues his streak of Being Surprisingly Sexy Onscreen (after Rock of Ages earlier this year) as Reacher. Apparently some readers were upset that Cruise doesn’t meet the physical description of the character in the book — no amount of movie fakery could convince us that Cruise is six-five and 250 pounds, and the film doesn’t try. But McQuarrie and Cruise mine some diverting humor from how this incarnation of Reacher is a small man who uses his big opponents’ size against them. There’s some smart procedural stuff here, as in the opening sequence, which can progress from the sniper shooting through the police investigation in a matter of a few minutes — and without any dialogue at all! — because it knows we’re already fully clued in as to how this stuff works.
Yet the motif of how the U.S. military breeds crazy killer types never gets enough of a workout. And while introducing wonderfully idiosyncratic German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) as the villain seems like the Best Thing Ever — the man has a voice and an accent and a delivery that was made to monologue evil plans — he’s woefully underused. And when we find out exactly what his evil plan entails, it’s so mundane that it’s hard to believe anyone thought to spin this movie out of it. It’s small bananas. It’s so made-for-TV.
It’s a shame, because when Jack Reacher started off not being what I thought it was gonna be, I figured it for that rarity, a smart grownup movie. It’s not dumb, but it’s not much of a movie, either.
*This was written mere hours before the Newtown shootings. I don’t like being this prescient.