Oh Tom. I’ve got to take my hat off to you, it’s a tough ask to deliver lines like ‘You think I’m a hero? I am not a hero. I’m a drifter with nothing to lose’ or ‘I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot!’ with a straight face (particularly when that face is more than a little prone to an eye-twinkle or a shit-eating grin). Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is full of risibly macho but entertainingly daft lines like this, many of which were presumably lifted from or inspired by Lee Child’s Reacher novel One Shot, which served as the literary base for this debut cinematic outing.
For the uninitiated, Child’s popular character is the subject of 20 bestselling novels to date, as well as several short stories; I’ve never felt curious enough to read one, but a friend tells me they’re not bad as airport novels go, which I guess is meant as praise. Anyway: Reacher’s a hard-as-nails ex-US Army Major who has effectively taken himself ‘off the grid’, and he spends his days drifting around the country using aliases while taking on various criminal investigation jobs. Oh, and he’s supposedly 6 ft 5 inches tall, meaning that the employment of Tom Cruise as the safe bet to kick start a Reacher film franchise wasn’t appreciated by a number of vocal fans, who felt the actor was too slight to convince in the role.
Cruise has plenty of polished action flicks like this under his belt, though, and as per usual thanks to a combination of innate confidence and favourable camera work he manages to pull it off without ever appearing to struggle, though this is one of his more uncomfortably leery performances: when he’s not doing battle with the various henchmen of glass-eyed Russian crime lord The Zec (Werner Herzog in a spot of hilariously on-the-money casting that sends up the director’s public persona) he’s usually standing uncomfortably close to defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who can do little but try and match the veteran actor’s intense flirt-gawping with some boggle-eyed glares of her own. The intention, presumably, is to develop the illusion of a little chemistry between the two characters, but all too often it looks like a stare-off in which neither participant is willing to back down.
Rodin has a seemingly impossible task on her hands in defending ex-military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora), who has apparently shot and killed five people in Pittsburgh (a sequence that McQuarrie uses to open his movie, though there’s little quite as gruesome or as uncomfortably enthralling in the two hours that follow). Facing the death penalty Barr cryptically writes ‘Get Jack Reacher!’ on his confession statement; no-one actually knows how to do that but thankfully Reacher simply shows up on cue anyway, and thus the investigator becomes involved in the case, quickly casting doubt on the pile of evidence collected by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo).
Jack Reacher is a typically sleek Cruisian crime thriller. I was expecting a feast of fights, gun battles and car chases, but it’s more like a vaguely disappointing brunch, with a huge dollop of the star’s overflowing stash of smarm ladled on top. We see Cruise’s Reacher regularly besting his opponents, verbally and in combat, but really there isn’t much here to enable either the film or the character to stand out from the pack; it’s just Another Tom Cruise Character doing things very well indeed, and it’s difficult to distinguish Reacher from Ethan Hunt, the actor’s long-running Mission Impossible government agent. Really, anything would have helped. Pet chihuahua? Grafted-on roller blades? Lapsed interest in mahogany furniture?
Meanwhile talented actors like Pike, Oyelowo and Robert Duvall (who plays the owner of a shooting range) are wasted as they struggle to wring interest out of their dull archetypes and credibility out of the intermittently dodgy writing, while Herzog’s ridiculous criminal overlord (who once chewed off all-but-one of his fingers in a Siberian death camp) only gets about five minutes of screen time. It’s an absurd cartoon villain, but at least the German director provides the film with several flashes of camp entertainment, so it’s a shame not to see more of him; unfortunately this means that The Zec’s inevitable comeuppance at the end of the film feels as flat as a wet fart on a Wednesday in Worthing.
Though it is mostly safe and predictable, with characters that are hard to care about and generally unmemorable, Jack Reacher isn’t a complete duffer. McQuarrie’s a good writer on his day – The Usual Suspects is all the evidence you’ll ever need – and his script contains a decent gag at the expense of a shirtless, buffed-up Cruise, while occasionally there’s a zip to the dialogue that makes good use of the star’s buttery slickness (witness, for example, the quickfire insults he fires at a gang of fools in a bar that mistakenly single him out for a scrap). Though they’re very much by-the-book the action sequences are enjoyable enough, too, even though nothing truly dazzles; ultimately it just feels a little lazy, a fact perhaps best highlighted by the presumably-unintended but insidious racism surrounding its typically-Hollywoodian villains (Russians, the only black character in the film, yawn yawn yawn).
Unfortunately I suspect that in a month or so I’ll have completely forgotten about most of Jack Reacher, save perhaps for the opening sequence and Herzog’s bizarre appearance; the rest of it will be a blur of shootouts, predictably duplicitous characters and The Cruiser’s face as his Reacher smugly tells various people that they’ve got something wrong. The actor isn’t as bankable as he once was, but a worldwide return of $200,000,000 isn’t to be sniffed at, and unsurprisingly a second outing is in the pipeline. I’m sure that too will make a wedge of money, but unless there’s a serious improvement I’ll probably pass.
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie. Based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney, Joseph Sikora, Robert Duvall.
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel.
Editing: Kevin Stitt.
Music: Joe Kraemer.
Running Time: 130 minutes.