Jack Reacher opens in startling fashion, as a sniper calmly and methodically sets up his rifle on the upper floors of a Pittsburgh parking garage and, taking all the time in the world, guns down five random pedestrians walking along the river on a warm spring day. Even without factoring in current events, the scene is brutal, breathtaking and sets up what’s at play with stunning efficiency.
Within hours of the incident, investigators have the suspect, James Barr, a disgraced Army sniper, in custody and a raft of evidence pointing to him as the killer. Instead of a confession, he issues a three-word plea: GET JACK REACHER.
The rest of the movie occasionally lives up to this strongly declarative opening, though it more often wallows in the usual business of Hollywood thrillers. Tom Cruise stars as Reacher, the hero of a series of novels by Lee Child. In this adaptation of the novel One Shot, Cruise’s Reacher is living off the grid after a long career as Military Police. According to all databases, the man is a ghost, baffling District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins, The Cabin in the Woods) and lead investigator Emerson (David Oyelowo, Lincoln)… until the man himself walks in the door. Not unlike the A-Team, if you can find him, and no one else can help, you might be able to hire Jack Reacher.
Reacher is hired by Barr’s attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike, Wrath of the Titans), who happens to be Rodin’s daughter and is far more skeptical of Barr’s guilt than her disapproving father. Reacher, taciturn but lured in by an old promise to Barr, proceeds on his own investigation into Barr’s apparent open-and-shut case. As you might expect, Barr’s guilt isn’t as clear as it first seems, and Reacher soon finds himself unraveling a conspiracy that puts him in the crosshairs of dangerous men with secrets worth killing for.
Though promoted as an action movie, Jack Reacher has more in common with Mickey Spillane than Michael Bay. There’s plenty of gunfire and car chases throughout, but there’s also crime noir fixtures like the fallen woman, the flunky thugs who get in over their heads, and the reluctant anti-hero just trying to settle old debts. Written and adapted for the screen by Christopher McQuarrie, an Academy Award winner for his screenplay to the similarly minded The Usual Suspects, plays a lot of those same notes of sleazy criminal excess here, and it’s in those moments that Jack Reacher shines. Cruise doesn’t much resemble the Reacher of Child’s novels, but he (inexplicably – this is still Tom Cruise) does sell the underlying menace and moral ambivalence of Reacher well. In what should be a ridiculous scene – Cruise taunting a goon over the phone by threatening to kill him and drink his blood from a boot – Cruise somehow makes it just the right amount of funny while making us believe that he would, in fact, kill that man and drink his blood from a boot. It’s incongruous, but Cruise sells Reacher’s steely resolve and ruthless agitation: He is not a man to be trifled with, and he does things for his own reasons, which may or may not include justice. When a gang of bar toughs start a fight with Reacher outside a saloon, the outcome is never in question, not just because the movie is named after him, so we know Reacher will be okay (he is), but because Cruise lends Reacher a wary intensity that tells us he will hunt down every last one of these punks if he has to (he does). It’s Cruise at his most formidable since Collateral.
In yet another curious casting choice, venerable German director Werner Herzog plays a villain known only as “The Zec," an underutilized and underwritten role that nonetheless makes nice use of Herzog’s frightening accent. There’s even an appearance by Robert Duvall as an unexpected, last minute ally for Reacher. It’s a movie full of strange choices like this, and they fail as often as they work. It occasionally remembers it’s a Hollywood action movie, so there’s the requisite romance with the impossibly attractive Helen and Reacher’s habit of defying death at every turn, James Bond-style. Jack Reacher excels when it lets itself get down and dirty and founders when it tries for slick blockbuster excess. When Reacher is stealing cars (as he is wont to do) or getting struck repeatedly with a crowbar (as he is also wont to do), the movie has a spark that’s missing whenever it veers into expected tropes and genre-fodder cheesiness like the traitor that’s in on the conspiracy or the transparently evil villain.
McQuarrie, no stranger to this material (in addition to writing The Usual Suspects, he wrote and directed the crime drama The Way of the Gun), mostly nails the same tone of wicked humor and deadpan violence, stunted somewhat by a half-baked desire to make Jack Reacher a bona fide action movie. Cruise, to the surprise of virtually anyone who’s ever heard of him, makes Reacher an appropriately menacing, sour hero, though his mere presence in this film means that the darkness that lurks at the fringes of the story can never fully materialize under the big-budget gloss. Jack Reacher never matches up to the promise of its opening scene – it’s too winking, too pleased with its own cleverness for that – and what’s left is an enjoyable, occasionally misguided crime thriller with shrugging aspirations to be something else.
Rating: 3 Stars
Film: Jack Reacher
Starring: Tom Cruise, Werner Herzog, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall and David Oyelowo
Written and Directed By: Christopher McQuarrie
Based On: the novel One Shot by Lee Child
Produced By: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Gary Levinsohn and Dana Goldberg
Running Time: Approximately 130 minutes
Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012