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.