Tom Cruise is not my ideal choice to play Jack Reacher; let’s just get that out of the way.
Reacher is tall, blonde, and physically imposing. Cruise, however buff, is short, with a more slender build. Reacher is stoic and reticent. Cruise is a master thespian in the Derek Zoolander school of acting — he never met an emotion he couldn’t project with a facial expression. Reacher is calm; Cruise exudes nervous energy.
None of that makes Cruise a bad actor; I actually think he’s quite good in the right roles. (Color of Money, Eyes Wide Shut, Rock of Ages, Jerry Maguire.) Neither does the casting make Jack Reacher: Never Go Back a bad movie. It’s an above-average chase-and-rescue procedural. But will readers invested in these characters be irritated at the way the story and character is rounded into a more generic form? I don’t know. Will viewers not at all invested in the book(s), find enough distinctive elements here to justify a trip to the multiplex when they could just pop The Gauntlet, Terminator, or Die Hard into their DVD players?
The film opens with Reacher wrapping up a case and flirting on the phone like a teenager with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Soon the drifter is heading to Washington to meet his long-distance crush, but she’s in prison for espionage and has left orders that he not be allowed to visit. So, of course, he breaks her out. Along the way to New Orleans to break up a paramilitary organization, Reacher and Turner rescue a teen girl who may (not really) or may not (if you knew Reacher like I knew Reacher…) be his biological daughter. They kick some butt, they take some names, they form a reasonable facsimile of the family none of them say they want but each apparently longs for.
In a strange way, the introduction was the part that irritated the book purist in me the most. Reacher met Turner throughout the events of 61 Hours, a previous book, and without risking spoilers, I’ll just say that the emotional bond they formed was posited as a bit more than attraction wrought from sexual bantering. Reacher, normally closed to the outside world, opens up to Turner at a key moment, and she sees (or hears) him at a psychologically and emotionally vulnerable moment.
The first act of the story plays very different if the relationship is presented as one of curious infatuation rather than as one of a strong psychological bond borne of shared trauma. The addition of the kid also comes across as too generic a movie situation. What makes the possibility of a father-daughter bond more interesting in the book is that it is a different wrinkle in book fifteen of the series. When added to the second film in the franchise…well, the character hardly has enough definition for viewers to understand what parts are against type.
At one point, an antagonist threatens Reacher by saying words to the effect of “You think you’re invincible, but you’re not!” This, too, is wrong. Reacher, by this time in the series, is carrying two scars, one from shrapnel, one from a knife fight. Both are reminders of just how vincible he really is. The key component of Jack Reacher’s character is that he masters fear. When hit, he leans in. He is not without fear (or any emotion, really), he has simply learned to manage his emotions. For that reason, the film is probably at its best when the girl asks him, “Don’t you ever get lonely?” and rather than deflecting the question with a Cruisish grin, Reacher says, simply, “Sometimes.”
Reading back over this review, I realize it sounds like I hated Never Go Back. I didn’t. I find myself surprised to be the dissenter on the more supportive side among my circle of friends. Perhaps my affinity for the character blinds me to the film’s greater flaws, but maybe it also mediates against reflexive film critic cynicism. As a liberalish academic, I probably shouldn’t like Reacher as much as I do. He’s close to a lot of conservative military stereotypes, sure, but he’s a military cop first and foremost. That means he’s seen the downside of the culture he embodies and honors. He realizes the lines between what he is and what he hunts are very thin, yet he is also remarkably and refreshingly unconflicted for all that.
There is also some genuine cultural work going on in the partnerships he forms with women. (Turner in this book, Neagley in some of the others.) Reacher is literature’s consummate egalitarian, allowing women to make their own choices. If he’s better than them at most physical tasks, well, he’s better than most men, too. There’s a wonderful, brief aerial shot early in the film of Reacher and Turner sprinting across grounds on the plaza in D.C. She’s ahead of him for a little, then they are stride for stride, then he pulls ahead. The point is clear, he may have saved her life, but he didn’t rescue her in the traditional movie sense…and before the movie’s done, she may well return the favor.
Screenplay credit here goes to Richard Wenk, whose other credits include The Equalizer, The Expendables 2, and The Magnificent 7. Perhaps he was the perfect choice if Cruise (who produced the film) and director Edward Zwick wanted to push the franchise in a more generic, action direction. If so, that’s a shame, I think, because down that path lies ever diminishing returns. Jack Reacher is still an interesting dude, but like a figure in a Polaroid picture that’s developing in reverse, he’s becoming less and less distinguishable from any other mass of action flesh with each passing second.