2012’s Jack Reacher was a curious phenomenon — an adaptation of Lee Child’s solid detective thriller “One Shot,” one of many featuring Child’s hulking, brilliant ex-military policeman protagonist of the same name. Once you were able to get past the fact that the 6’5” main character was being played by the lilliputian Tom Cruise, you found yourself with an unexpectedly enjoyable movie. That was aided some by an excellent screenplay and directing job by Christopher McQuarrie, as well as a capable supporting cast. Even human LEGO character Jai Courtney turned in a good performance. Made on a relatively modest $60 million budget, it grossed nearly three times that. When it was announced that another film would be made, it was hardly a surprise
What was a surprise was the decision to continue it with an adaptation of Never Go Back, easily one of the weakest entries in the 20 book series (soon to be 21). This time, it’s directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), and features Reacher coming to Washington DC to find military police Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). They are quickly embroiled in a nefarious plot that gets both of them arrested, breaking out of prison, and tracking down a shadowy cabal of bad guys in a fairly pedestrian thriller plot.
And there’s the problem. Never Go Back has none of the tautness or tense energy of McQuarrie’s first entry. Instead, it’s a rote, by-the-numbers story with far too many steps crammed into a fairly dull narrative. There’s a lot stuffed in here — Reacher’s burgeoning relationship with Turner, a seemingly shoehorned-in story about a teenage girl (Danika Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter, a weird, stilted family dynamic between Reacher, Turner and Yarosh’s Samantha that never quite works, a military conspiracy, a relentless and relentlessly boring assassin, and a few other threads lazily woven in. There’s even a token, if deeply unsatisfying effort to address the issues that women face when trying to climb the ranks in the military, and a half-assed attempt to show us the tragedies of veterans who end up homeless and/or drug addicted.
Pick one or two of these things, and we might have been able to get somewhere. But instead, it’s a series of barely coherent distractions wrapped around some poorly choreographed fight scenes (particularly disappointing given that the action was so well-constructed in the first film) and a lot of running. The big reveal isn’t surprising at all — it’s telegraphed early on and it’s not particularly shocking (although to its credit, it’s better than the idiotic anticlimax in the novel). Cruise is on autopilot throughout the film, putting in enough effort to show he’s awake, but little else (other than running. Lord, does Cruise like to run in his movies). The film wastes the talents of Smulders and Aldis Hodge (MC Ren in Straight Outta Compton), and while they both do the best they can with what they have, you can almost feel their frustration when their character arcs arrive at their respective dead ends.
Most of Lee Child’s novels are little more than airport books, but they’re usually well-written, smartly (if occasionally belief-stretching) plotted, cleverly assembled stories that take a formidable protagonist and place him in interesting and engaging encounters. If you have to be stuck in an airport, there are far worse ways to spend your time. By that same token, there are airplane films that may not exactly be game-changers, but they’re entertaining enough to get you through the mind-numbing boredom that comes with traveling. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back isn’t one of those. It’s a plodding, cumbersome story peppered with some uninteresting twists and unexciting characters, broken up by weakly assembled action and so, so much running. It’s the worst kind of airplane movie, one that will only make your trip seem longer, making you wonder if you, like the story itself, will ever get anywhere interesting. You might, but the film will not.