Jack Reacher Review: It's A Hard, Hard Road That I Travel Down The Line

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Jack Reacher Review: It's A Hard, Hard Road That I Travel Down The Line

By TK | Film Reviews | December 24, 2012 | Comments ()


There are two issues to get out of the way before we wade into the review of Jack Reacher, one very unfortunate complexity to do with timing, and one more to do with literary fealty and suspension of disbelief. The first one is this: Jack Reacher starts out with a gunman firing into a crowd of strangers, killing five people, including a woman carrying a small child. As I said, the timing is unfortunate. I'm not criticizing the movie for its content, because had this come out three weeks ago, we'd have no need for a preamble. But the fact is that in the wake of Newtown, it's worth mentioning because there was a palpable feeling of collective discomfort and in some cases, audible fear among the audience. And it's not hard to figure out why. Again, I'm not judging the film for that, but I don't want anyone going in blind when such a delicate issue is on everyone's mind.

The second is a more lighthearted issue, but one that has a number of people, including me, in a bit of an uproar, and that has to do with suspension of disbelief for those of us who have read Lee Child's source novel, One Shot. The character of Jack Reacher is a beast of a man in Child's novels, a 6'5", 250 pound force of nature who happens to also be a very keen investigator and with near-savant intelligence. It's a bit ridiculous, but the novels are well-written enough to enjoy them as pulpy fun. Of course, casting Tom Cruise sent us book fans into a collective fury, not just for any distaste for Cruise in general, but also because casting someone so far from the character's physicality seemed like the worst brand of stunt casting. And in truth, it is, and I'm still annoyed by it. But I will say that for the majority of this review, I'm going to try to deal with it as if I'd never read the books and judge the film on its own merit. Towards the end, we'll deal with the issue of Cruise himself as our beloved Jack Reacher.

Let's begin, then.

As mentioned, Jack Reacher starts with the methodical setup, and execution, of a sniper firing upon a seemingly random group of people walking along a riverbank in Pittsburgh. It's a slow, deliberately placed, no-frills setup, climaxing with a gripping, genuinely distressing sequence of deaths followed by the ensuing, obvious chaos as the first shot is fired. The evidence, under the lead investigation of Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), leads to James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former Army sniper, who is promptly picked and charged with a veritable mountain of evidence. Barr is defended by the diligent lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who is facing, strangely, her father, District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins), a bulldog of a DA who's never lost a murder trial and is renowned for the number of people he's sent to death row.

Amidst this bizarre morass of police investigation, family dynamics and legal wheeling and dealing, is the appearance of Jack Reacher (Cruise), a former military policeman turned shiftless drifter. Reacher has a curious, not particularly friendly past with Barr, and upon hearing the news hustles to Pittsburgh not to save him, but to ensure his bitter end. Yet Reacher ultimately ends up investigating the crime itself, first to determine Barr's sanity, and then eventually faced with the possibility of innocence. Reacher is drawn into a complex, bizarre conspiracy featuring a pair of vicious criminals led by a man known only as The Zec (Werner Herzog), and his henchman, the grim, methodical Charlie (Jai Courtney).

That's the bare bones of the plot, and the good news is there's a good deal more to it than that. Jack Reacher is a curious project indeed. It's based on a successful series of novels that, while entertaining, are not exactly literary juggernauts. Yet writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (director of The Way of the Gun and writer of The Usual Suspects) made the decision to create a surprisingly deep, nuanced little thriller. Forget what the trailers tell you -- Jack Reacher is, for the most part, not much of an action movie. Sure, there's a pretty compelling (though somewhat drawn out) car chase, and a brief, vicious bar brawl. And the climax does have its share of gunplay. Yet the focus of the film doesn't meditate on those more violent aspects. Instead, what we have is a genuine detective story, something that is actually rather rare. While the rough and tumble stuff is fun, and Reacher's glib, darkly clever dialogue is engaging, it's the picture's ability to draw you into solving the puzzle.

McQuarrie has left a unique stamp all over the film, yet it's Cruise that is in many ways the most unusual ingredient. Cruise is not a bad actor, but he's not particularly deft or subtle in his performances, making the two of them an unusual pair. Yet Cruise plays Reacher with an laconic, acerbic dryness that makes the character far more engaging than the average Cruise vehicle. You never quite overcome the sensation that you're watching Tom Cruise and not his character, but I will freely confess that's in part due to my own preconceptions about what Reacher should look like. Yet it's also due to an inherent weakness in Cruise's ability to simply act beyond a certain skill level, and while his delivery is good and his physicality mostly works, it's hard to shake the feeling that he's simply trying a little too hard at times.

But Cruise plays a character with a peculiar mix of traits. Reacher is capable of shocking, vicious violence, but he's not one for extended battles. His goal is to put the enemy down, quickly and permanently and without hesitation, and the bar fight is perfectly demonstrative of this. It's a nicely shot scene, too, with twinkling streetlights offering a sharp contrast to the dinginess of the setting and the brutality of the brawl. Yet what sets Reacher apart from the conventional hero is that he's not much of a hero. He's ultimately acting out of a weird self-interest, compelled to know what happened more for his own sake than due to a thirst for justice. He's a graceless loner, but also a brilliant investigative mind, and the film is at its best when it's fixing its lens on that process, aided by a knotty tension that McQuarrie capably works into his scenes.

It's a generally enjoyable film, though an odd one. It wants to be a bit of a thinking man's actioner, but it's plot occasionally gets tangled up in its own cleverness. It's also a little too broad in its humor at times, with some of Reacher's quips coming off as a little too vulgar or excessive. It's a character that's supposed to be efficient and self-contained, yet there's also a ridiculous "throw down your guns and fight it out" scene that's not only contrary to the character that McQuarrie so carefully developed, it's also simply stupid. The supporting cast makes for an unusual mix as well. Werzog's casting sent a few fascinated ripples through the movie world, but he doesn't get to do much other than make sinister proclamations in a thick Russian accent. Yet Jai Courtney, as his quiet, deadly right-hand man is actually very good, giving his grim, sparsely spoken killer a surprising charisma.

Rosamund Pike, on the other hand, never quite works, and that's in part because the chemistry between her and Cruise falls a little flat. She's meant to be a brilliant legal mind who's thrown off-balance by Reacher, but instead she comes off as unnecessarily awkward and frustratingly obstinate in many ways. It's a clunkily written character that's hindered further by a rather drab performance. Pike gets a couple of slick lines, but ultimately is probably the weakest character in the film. For good measure, Robert Duvall is thrown in as a blustery old codger, which is basically all Duvall does these days. But damn if he doesn't do it well here. Oyelowo is an actor who should be doing better, but this isn't going to help as he's reduced to playing a relatively basic cop stereotype. It can be argued that the biggest shame is that despite a relatively sharply written screenplay, McQuarrie blundered into some pretty bland and derivative stereotyping for some of the supporting cast.

Yet it's Cruise that makes or breaks the film, and mostly makes it, although he stumbles a little when trying to play it a little too smart. I'm not even sure who to blame for that -- McQuarrie serves up some clever and interesting dialogue, but Cruise simply isn't always up to the task -- though when he is, it works very well. It's tough getting past the physical nature of the character, something that's integral to the books, yet it can be overcome here. McQuarrie fills in the gaps with a no frills atmosphere that's both stark and captivating at the same time, not shying away from brightly lit sunny days, and equally contrasted with washed out, darkened nights. The mood is heightened by some unorthodox scoring -- it's filmed with some off-putting and bombastic pieces, yet the action scenes themselves are dead silent, without a hint of music, letting the harshness of its violence speak for itself. I'm not confident that Jack Reacher is a movie I'll look back on fondly in a few years, but despite some stumbles here and there, the film is rather compelling, and does more justice to the source material than we'd ever expected. It falls short of the subtle, almost arty thriller that McQuarrie reaches for, and instead settles for usually entertaining, and occasionally smart.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Stina

    Ok, am I the only one to see the Littlest Hobo connection with this movie?? (Book lovers, please don't hate me.) But, talented drifter wanders in to town where he's most needed and solves everything without making any lasting connections. Yeah, Tom Cruise made a dark, gritty Littlest Hobo remake with a human title character instead of a dog.

  • Walter Ray Choi

    "...it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s simply trying a little too hard at times."

    The story of this grinning cuckoo's film career thus far.

  • sherlockzz

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I recall my horror upon hearing that Jack Nicholson was going to be Randall Patrick McMurphy when all I could ever picture in the role was James Caan. There was no way I was going to like Jack in the role. It just didn't fit. Wasn't right. I was prepared to see one of my favorite books destroyed on the screen. That feeling was gone by the end of the first reel. Specifically, by the end of McMurphy's interview with the head shrink at the hospital. A great actor can grab a role and make it his b*tch. It can be done.

  • kilmo

    Now I want to read the book, 'cause that was bad. I sensed they were trying for stuff, but just couldn't get there.

    Sure, Cruise could be badass, but all the people he fought/beat up were fucking idiots/meth heads. That bathroom sequence was funny, because it was redik. He should be able to hear people creep up on him, especially ill-graceful meth heads.

    Also, his stomach is sooo gross. I'm guessing only owning ONE shirt is an important plot point in the book, otherwise no reason.

    Agreed, Rosamund Pike was so miscast it was unfair. Her accent sounded like she was channeling Angie Harmon from Law and Order. Was she that redik in the book. I realize this isn't Pike's fault, but her makeup person should've been fired. Put some blush on her cheeks, she looked like a ghost the entire movie and some eyeshadow/mascara wouldn't of hurt either.

  • c

    WHAT THE FUCK DOES 'redik' MEAN? Is that the newest hipster shitbag way to spell ridiculous? If so, FUCK YOU.

    Newsflash, you don;t come across as hip or cool or chic or smart or with it doing shit like that, you come across as a complete and utter fuckard moron who needs to get all of your teeth punched out.

    What exactly was SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO gross about Cruise's stomach, the fact that he had scars on it? O NOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT THAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ANYTHING BUT THAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You're the type of shithole who thinks even a single pubic hair is HTE GRODY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LIKE BARFOMATIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    If you'd read the book....fuck that who are we kidding, you obviously don't know how to read ANYTHING, the scars are part of Reacher's character as they are wounds that he suffered during his career in the army. They are seen in the movie as an identifier for Reacher and as a way for the filmmakers to show how Reacher's stomach ended up looking as it did in later movies if there are more movies made.

    Tell us, what is it like being such an ignorant fucktard?

  • duckandcover

    Go home. You're drunk.

  • duckandcover

    You could probably sell a car back to the salesman, TK, with these kinds of reviews.

    The only recent movie that I've enjoyed Tom Cruise in was Tropic Thunder. His over-the-top acting and the fact that he was the best cameo hidden by the most ridiculous prosthetics was perfect for the tone and subject matter of the movie. However, based on this review alone, I wouldn't mind picking up the book, let alone the movie (albeit at the dollar theater or something discounted).

  • Idle Primate

    Hearing the villain is Werner Herzog is the villain makes me a lot more interested in this

  • pumpkin

    I don't think I've ever liked Tom Cruise in anything. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed his movies. But I've never enjoyed his performances. He always seems to stick out like a sore thumb.

  • Walter Ray Choi

    A sore, small, Tom Thumb.

  • Guest


  • ,

    Hollywood on the Mon.

  • c

    Saw it this afternoon.

    Cruise is an AWESOME executive producer. The movie LOOKS AWESOME, most importantly for me, the coloring looks...NATURAL, not this digitally altered and filtered bullshit that seems to be the norm these days. The daylight scenes look like they were shot during daylight and not at 'magic hour.

    As for Cruise playing himself, shit you can say that about 90% of the stars these days.

    Downey plays the smartass drunk in every movie.

    Depp plays the queer who doesn't know he's a queer in every movie.

    Brad Pitt plays Brad Pitt.

    Clooney plays Clooney.

    I really liked the twisted callback to a certain memorable scene from Risky Business.

    I can recommend it as a matinee and definitely a rental.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    A very well-written review. I wonder though...shouldn't we always feel a little more uncomfortable when civilians are gunned down in movies? Is this event only shocking because the recent actual has replaced the general possible?

    I know I've gotten more squeamish as I've gotten older. I don't have any stomach for Grand Theft Auto, and yes, the idea of a mother holding a child being gunned down makes me squirm.

  • c

    Well since it isn't the mother holding the child, but the babysitter I don't see any problem.

  • ,

    Fuck that noise*, how does Pittsburgh look?

    *--No, not really. I appreciated the thorough, well-thought-out review, cause I might go see this tomorrow and wanted to know I wouldn't be wasting my money. Now I'm intrigued. But I also wondered if the setting made any difference.

    I read a lot of detective novels and think maybe I've read "One Shot," but I'm not certain. So I can probably put aside my preconceptions of what Reacher is supposed to look like and just watch Cruise, who is not a great actor but is certainly competent and occasionally pretty good.


  • ,

    OK, a good bit of Pittsburgh on display (even spotted St. Stan's in the Strip, means one scene at least was shot a few feet from the original Primanti's).

    Might be the first time anyone's gone 5-for-6 at PNC Park in a few years, hey-o!*

    And this might be heresy, but I have a lot less trouble buying into Cruise being effectively threatened by some hoods as a normal size (if exceptionally pumped up) human being than I would have had Reacher been played by someone 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. You'd expect a guy like that to inspire at least some fear in hoodlums and to win most of his brawls. A guy Cruise's size, there's at least an element of doubt; you can see why thugs think they can menace him and get him to go away.

    All in all, a solid two hours of entertainment.

    *--I did see Andy LaRoche have the game of his life there a couple years ago, going 5-for-5 with two homers, two doubles and six RBIs. Think some Pirate might have had five hits there in 2012, but I'm too lazy to look it up.

  • Mavler

    So should they have cast the Rock instead? Who do you get to play Reacher? Sure you could find some no name behemoth but you want people to come see the movie don't you?

  • The Kilted Yaksman

    Joe Manganiello

  • Dee Fogger

    I could picture Liam Neeson in the role. Actually, pretty much anybody but Cruise.

  • Wembley

    'You never quite overcome the sensation that you’re watching Tom Cruise and not his character...'
    This is the problem (one of them) I've had with Cruise since War of the Worlds. The whole movie was Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning running away from aliens, not Ray and Rachel Ferrier(??). And ever since, in the things I've seen him in, he's always Tom Cruise and never the character.
    All those actors who don't want you to know about their personal life? They're right.

    Also, the tough guy lines from the trailer just seem laughable coming from him.

  • RilesSD

    Great review. Crazy aside, I've always thought Cruise was a pretty good actor. The performance is somewhat subtle in parts, but I watched Collateral again the other night and thought he was perfect in it.

    I'll check this out.

  • Jill

    I've always thought that Collateral was one of the better films Cruise has made. He was surprisingly good in it. And I write that from the point of view of someone who generally likes Tom Cruise films.

    And I'll say this for the guy, he always seems to try his best in whatever role he's in. Many times he tries too hard as the review points out. But he's not lazy. He works darn hard to entertain people. I respect that.

  • Wembley

    I agree. You seldom see anyone try harder than Cruise. But maybe trying is like acting. If you can see them doing it, they're not doing it well. Maybe a lot of actors try as hard as Cruise, but you can't tell, because they are better at it than Cruise.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Nice review TK. Sounds a lot better than I was expecting.

    To digress a bit, your first paragraph made me think of the trailers for Gangster Squad that have popped up on TV in the last week or so. It's frustrating and saddening to think that in the time since that film's release was delayed (due to the Aurora shooting), there have been three more high-profile, public mass shootings involving semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines (not to mention other shootings at schools where the shooter only killed themselves). It's a depressing context where the frequency of these kinds of events is acutely highlighted.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I hadn't planned on seeing this but I'm open to the possibility now. Thanks

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