Over the last few years, Tom Cruise has managed to become one of Hollywood’s safest bets. His resume is filled with relatively tame, inoffensive, and entertaining action and sci-fi films that give him the chance to stare down bad guys and remind everyone that his character is not a man to be underestimated. He leaves the morally ambiguous protagonists to other actors, and seems to prefer giving his considerable fanbase exactly what they expect from a movie with his name on it each and every time they buy a ticket. He is a brand – an unchanging commodity.
But every now and then a film like Jack Reacher comes along and screws up the good thing he had going.
It’s worth noting early on that I’ve never read any of Lee Child’s novels, which chronicle the adventures of former Military Investigator Jack Reacher, a drifter who travels around the country solving crimes and killing bad guys. Sadly, after seeing Jack Reacher, I’m not sure the books are moving to the top of my reading list any time soon.
Directed by The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie, who previously worked Tom Cruise as a writer and producer in the Hitler-assassination film Valkyrie, Jack Reacher follows its tough-guy hero as he investigates the murder of several civilians by a military sniper. As one might expect, all is not as it initially seems, and both Jack and the sniper’s lawyer, Helen (Rosamund Pike), find themselves caught up in a deadly scheme that somehow involves a former prisoner who chewed his own fingers off while incarcerated in Siberia.
And if that last bit feels like it came out of left field, you’re not alone.
Here’s the thing: I love action movies and I appreciate a good thriller. And hey, I’ll even admit to enjoying the majority of Cruise’s films, too. So I’m not sure what went wrong with Jack Reacher.
At times, Jack Reacher never seems quite certain of what sort of film it wants to be. What begins as a tense, suspense-driven film eventually veers off into adrenaline-fueled action movie once Jack’s investigation gains momentum. Normally, this wouldn’t be a bad thing, but somewhere along the line Jack Reacher turns into a full-blown farce that seems to be making fun of action and suspense movie tropes one minute, then shifts into something far more dark and earnest the next.
The on-screen version of Jack Reacher played by Cruise is like a witty, homeless Batman, able to solve any crime by virtue of superior deductive skills that keep him three steps ahead of everyone else. At the end of the day, however, he goes home to a seedy hotel to wash his thrift-store clothes in a bathroom sink. Capable of dispatching five men without breaking a sweat, his moral compass doesn’t allow for any gray area between good guys and villains, even though he operates within that gray area most of the time himself. Furthermore, he always says the most clever thing possible at any given point, and his mere presence earns both the respect of every common man and the adoration of every woman. Basically, he is the coolest man in the world — and he solves mysteries, too.
Not being familiar with the character from the novels, I’m not sure whether this is an accurate portrayal of Jack Reacher, but it’s clearly a character Cruise is comfortable with since it’s not too far off from the roles he traditionally plays. In fact, that’s probably why Cruise’s take on Jack is actually one of the more positive elements of the film.
While the film is essentially a one-man show, it also features an impressive supporting cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall, and Werner Herzog. Jenkins gives an entirely acceptable, if not exactly memorable performance as the District Attorney prosecuting the suspected killer, but it’s Duvall and Herzog’s roles that inspire some of the film’s truly head-scratching moments. Duvall plays the veteran owner of a gun club who decides – for some unexplained reason – to help Jack out when he needs a hand killing some of the bad guys’ henchmen. His character’s arc probably requires the biggest leap in logic of anyone in the film, as he goes from seemingly inconsequential contact in the investigation to friendly geriatric killing machine after Jack impresses him with his skill on the rifle range.
Meanwhile, Herzog plays the film’s shadowy antagonist, “The Zec,” and does little more than sneer and say mean things as the film’s relatively ineffective and decidedly not scary villain. His role in the diabolical machinations unfolding around Jack’s investigation is never quite clear, though we’re led to believe he’s some kind of shadowy criminal mastermind who dispatches anyone who sees his face. His only real contribution to the film is an early scene in which The Zec (which apparently means “The Prisoner”) explains why his decision to chew off his own fingers while imprisoned in Siberia is a testament to his frightening willpower, but without any real character arc to speak of in the film, you’re left wondering why everyone is so scared of this fingerless, one-eyed old man who hangs out in the corner.
The only other role with much of a presence in the film is played by Rosamund Pike, who plays the lawyer defending the suspected shooter and the daughter of Jenkins’ character, the D.A. (which seems like a gross conflict of interest in any real-world legal system). Pike’s role in the film never evolves beyond the traditional “attractive, strong-willed woman who will eventually be worn down by the hero’s charm,” and there’s very little chemistry between Cruise and Pike’s characters.
Still, that’s not to say Jack Reacher is a total loss. The film does feature a few unique, entertaining fight sequences that indicate some time was spent on developing a style for Jack that combines traditional martial arts and a more brutal, up-close form of brawling that uses anything within reach to pummel your opponent – including at one point, another opponent. The film also contains a spectacular car chase that blends the visual elements of the sequence with some fantastic sound editing to make the entire theater roar along with the action. Without giving anything away, the success of the chase scene is that much more impressive (and frustrating) when you see the anti-climactic and – to be blunt – ridiculous way the scene is concluded.
Given so many options, it’s hard to narrow down exactly what makes Jack Reacher such a mess of a film. It has all the makings of a mainstream box-office success, with a known commodity like Tom Cruise on every poster, a loyal fanbase for the source material, and competent, capable supporting cast. But fail it does, as it never seems quite sure of what it wants to be, or what sort of characters the cast should be playing. In the end, it’s easy to believe that the only mystery Jack Reacher can’t solve is the question of where his movie went so very, very wrong.