When it was first announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Jack Reacher, the jokes flew fast and furious. After all, Reacher – the fictional protagonist of many novels written by Lee Child – is supposed to be a hulking brute of a man. 6' 5", bulging muscles, blond hair... in other words, not Tom Cruise. Set aside the fact that the big-screen version of the character looks nothing like the one described in the novels, however, and you'll find a mostly satisfying thriller which ultimately proves a pretty solid vehicle for America's most resilient movie star.
Our tale begins with a scene of tragedy, as five random people are gunned down by a pitiless sniper. The police suspect former military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora, Shutter Island), whose fingerprints were on one of the bullets and who has a history of violent behavior. Sikora refuses to talk, other than making a simple request: “Get Jack Reacher.” Who is Jack Reacher, exactly? A former Army Ranger, a highly-trained killer and a drifter who hasn't been seen in years. Reacher eventually appears, but by the time he does, Barr has been beaten to a pulp by fellow prisoners and placed in a coma. Did someone want to keep Barr quiet? Reacher is doubtful, but can't be sure. Barr's defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl) eventually persuades Reacher to become her lead investigator, and the hunt for the truth is on.
The film makes an intriguing choice in its opening scene, giving us a good look at the real sniper (played by Jai Courtney, Unbroken). As such, we know who is responsible, but not why. The answer to that question is a slightly complicated one, and one of the things I like about Jack Reacher is the way it moves the plot along at its own pace. There are some energetic action scenes here and there, yes (and director Christopher McQuarrie acquits himself nicely in this department), but the movie grants its colorful supporting cast time to breathe. As such, it feels like a Mission: Impossible film by way of Elmore Leonard, as focused on absorbing the distinctive features of the characters who populate its world as it is on advancing the plot and generating big-budget thrills.
My favorite of the supporting players is The Zec, a villain played with menacing relish by the great Werner Herzog. A chilly confrontation between The Zec and one of his ill-fated underlings (Michael Raymond-James, Terriers) is one of the film's most memorable moments, and the only disappointment is that Herzog isn't given anything else quite that juicy for the remainder of the film. Still, his icy death stare is one of the flick's strongest images. Coming in a close second is Robert Duvall's Cash, a gun store owner and ex-Marine who provides Reacher with some valuable assistance in the third act. Duvall is given ample room to chomp the scenery, and it's fun to observe the way his character makes almost everyone else in the film (including Reacher, honestly) seem foolishly impulsive. Granted, some of the other key supporting characters (including David Oyelowo's no-nonsense police detective and Rosamund Pike's conflicted attorney) aren't quite as flavorful, but they're still engaging, well-drawn individuals.
The film is based on Child's One Shot, but the screenplay was penned by McQuarrie, so I'm not entirely sure who to blame/credit for the film's hard-boiled dialogue. It veers dramatically between clever (“There are three things cops never do: they don't vote Democrat, they don't drive Cadillacs and they never use personal vehicles”) and juvenile (Woman: “I don't mind the sight of blood.” Reacher: “When it means you're not pregnant, anyway.”), which seems about right for a movie which attempts to position itself in the middle ground between blockbuster bombast and quirky indie thrillers. At least the dialogue doesn't sound generic. The movie has a personality, though there are times when you'll wish that personality would grow up a little bit.
Still, Cruise's undeniable charm goes a long way, and he slips comfortably into the character's oversized shoes. Cruise aces the relaxed confidence the role calls for, and delivers one of his more memorable characters of recent years. Thankfully, it looks like the actor will have an opportunity to return to the role. Despite middling domestic box office returns, the film fared rather well internationally (I choose to credit Herzog's beautiful Bavarian accent for this) and a sequel has been announced. Much as I enjoy the Mission: Impossible films (the best of which demonstrate a level of craftsmanship Jack Reacher doesn't... er, reach), I still have no idea who Ethan Hunt is other than “Tom Cruise action guy.” I feel like I know exactly who Jack Reacher is, though, and if future installments can find a way to maximize what works in this first installment and minimize what doesn't, we could be in for a real treat. In the meantime, this one offers a decent way to pass a couple of hours.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Year: 2012