If Jack Reacher, the new Tom Cruise action-mystery released today, had opened at any other time, it would probably be considered another palatable but forgettable thriller with a surprising hint of attitude from its superstar lead. It has the inopportune luck, however, of coming out just a few days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, CT, which leads to some capably photographed, gun-centric moments rendered more uncomfortable than they were originally intended. It doesn’t make the movie any better, and the slight subject matter probably won’t get anybody talking about gun control – at least not in the context of Jack Reacher – but it could bring up some interesting questions about the glorification of murder in Hollywood entertainment; questions many people feel should’ve been asked a long time ago and whose answers could be both revelatory and productive.
Ultimately, Jack Reacher is more interesting in the context of its origins: An adaptation of One Shot, written by British author Jim Grant (as Lee Child) and one in a long series of Jack Reacher novels, Grant’s hero is portrayed in the books much as he is by Cruise (except quite a bit taller). A former U.S. Army military policeman, Reacher lives off the grid as a matter of choice. He doesn’t care for authority, but understands its purpose. Like the trailer says, he only cares about what’s “right.” He’s hyper-capable, and women are comically irresistible to him. In other words, he’s an adolescent male power fantasy conceived by an Englishman attempting to grasp America’s fascination with guns and crime. If there’s any hero clever enough to rise above whatever corruption Grant/Child might see in the American way of life, it’s Jack Reacher.
Beginning with a slow, methodical spree killing in Pittsburgh, local authorities are quick to capture James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a detached former Army sniper skilled enough to make the shots and boxed in by mountains of evidence. Beaten into a coma by other prisoners for his crime – there are five murders – he makes one request: “Get Jack Reacher.” Right on cue, Reacher appears after much dialogue is given explaining just how hard it is to find him, and he begins investigating the shootings alongside Barr’s plausibly attractive defense attorney (Rosamund Pike).
Jack Reacher was written for the screen and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for The Usual Suspects. It’s slick and professional, but much of the styling reaches back to the particularly unexceptional 90s action-thriller, an age when Tommy Lee Jones won an Oscar for The Fugitive. The lighting, pacing and music are eerily similar; the story beats follow a familiar rhythm. Cruise has somehow managed to use his clout to produce a film akin to something he might’ve turned down to star in the first Mission: Impossible.
Of course, there’s more the story than the open-and-shut case against Barr. The film manages, in the first few minutes, to sell itself short by revealing too much of the truth too quickly, siphoning away much of the suspense. We watch Cruise, who’s having a good time as – and is good at playing – a brutal, masterless warrior, methodically assembling the pieces and giving the audience plenty of time to stay on top of things. It’s easy and entertaining; Cruise would probably do better sticking with Jack Reacher in the future than the overcomplicated adventures of Ethan Hunt.
With conspiracy afoot, Jack Reacher faces clueless goons (including a menacing Jai Courtney, soon to gain fame for playing John McClane, Jr. in A Good Day to Die Hard) and an innocent, small-town girl (Alexia Fast) preciously caught in the middle. In a mystery for the ages, director Werner Herzog appears as a bizarre criminal mastermind and refugee from a better, more creative action picture, speaking in vague riddles about the notion of survival and answering cell phones with the only two fingers the character’s got left.
Other than a charmingly earnest gun shop owner played by a welcome Robert Duvall, and a brief examination of a trained sniper unable to constructively utilize his skills, there isn’t any more commentary on America’s gun culture in Jack Reacher than there would be on a rerun of CSI. There wasn’t supposed to be; guns are portrayed as effective killing machines – which they are – and whatever could be retroactively inferred from close-ups of weapon mechanics and bullets are best left to the individual viewer. Because our hero is so strategic, and so clever, and so prepared, a firearm is just one more tool in his war chest. What matters in Jack Reacher is the man behind the trigger, what he wants, what he thinks, and what he stands for. That sounds a lot better than it actually is. C+
Jack Reacher, a TC Productions and Skydance Productions co-production distributed by Paramount Pictures, is 130 minutes long and rated PG-13.