'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back': Film Review

Doesn't heed its title's advice.

Tom Cruise returns in this sequel based on Lee Child's books about a wrong-righting former military police commander.

If there had been any doubt, the tepid Jack Reacher: Never Go Back firmly establishes the adaptations of Lee Child's books about a wrong-righting former military police commander as Tom Cruise's B-unit action film series at Paramount, compared with his ongoing luxury-brand Mission: Impossible franchise.

By-the-numbers plotting, seen-it-all-before action moves, banal locations and a largely anonymous cast alongside the star give this a low-rent feel. The initial entry opened to $15.2 million on its first weekend four Decembers ago, on its way to a $218 million worldwide haul, and the follow-up can be expected to land in the same ballpark.

Based on the 18th of Child's 20 Reacher best-sellers, the film serves up nothing that hasn't been seen in countless action films before, and it's striking how little effort appears to have been made to give it any distinction: The villains are military guys gone rogue, the female lead is basically fighting the same fight Rosalind Russell did to be recognized for her equal worth among men in His Girl Friday more than 75 years ago, the hand-to-hand combat won't make anyone's highlight reel and even the star looks a bit pale and out of training compared with the shape he invariably gets himself into for the far more elaborate and fun Mission outings.

The film also marks quite a step down, in both ambition and accomplishment, from Cruise and director Edward Zwick's previous collaboration on The Last Samurai 16 years ago. It's even a notable drop-off from the first Reacher feature, which brandished some decent mystery-thriller elements, a very good and realistic car chase, Rosamund Pike in the female lead, juicy supporting turns by Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog and fine Caleb Deschanel cinematography.

This one, by contrast, has little to write home about. For a guy who's been out of the military for a while, Reacher (no one calls him Jack) still can't manage to stay away from soldiers and their institutions. Unfortunately, most of them are up to no good, as he finds out when he pops into Washington to check out the woman who now has his old job, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Unfortunately, their potential date will have to wait, as she's just been arrested for espionage, although this gives him an excuse to prove how slick he is by rescuing her from the high-tech prison where she's held.

This puts him at odds with a Blackwater-like security firm that seems to be running the show and is both willing and anxious to rub out anyone who's on to its big-time weapons and drug dealing. Narratively, the film is almost entirely nuts and bolts, with Reacher and Susan literally on the run most of the time from a coolly efficient assassin (Patrick Heusinger) simply called The Hunter who, in one-on-one combat, can give Reacher a pretty hard time.

The one real twist in the strictly mechanical script by Richard Wenk (the very recent The Magnificent Seven), Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (the latter two now a very long way from Thirtysomething days) is the presence of a teenager, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who may or may not be Reacher's daughter from a relationship 16 years earlier. Left largely to her own devices by her mother, Samantha ends up accompanying the pair to New Orleans, where the trio scenically arrive just as the Halloween parade is about to swing into action.

We just see snippets of the locals celebrating as only these locals can, however, as Reacher and The Hunter have it out on the rooftops of the French Quarter while the revelers party on obliviously below. As ever, Reacher is most into hand-to-hand combat, as is The Hunter, resulting in some pretty intense bone-crushing snaps, jabs and well-placed slugs. But there's nothing that hasn't been seen innumerable times before, and in neither style nor substance do Zwick and his writers bring anything new to the genre table here.

The one element that puts a smidgen of snap in the proceedings is something resembling a rivalry between Reacher and Susan in which the latter introduces the gender issue. Unfortunately, neither the screenwriters nor the actors know quite where they want to take this little skirmish of the sexes (not very far, obviously), nor do they have the flair to handle it in a witty fashion, which leaves the matter just sitting out there on a limb.

For an actor who usually seems all-in no matter what he's doing, Cruise comes off as somewhat less engaged than usual here, just going through the motions compared to, certainly, his last Mission: Impossible outing. Committed most noticeably to the physical side of her performance, Smulders can't or won't offer up the humor that might have struck some sparks with her co-star, while Yarosh, sidelined through much of the New Orleans interlude, doesn't have much real to work with as the fraught would-be daughter.

Undistinguished visually, this marks a return to the old days, when sequels were almost always markedly inferior to originals that spawned them.

Opens: Friday (Paramount)
Production: Tom Cruise Productions
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Robert Knepper
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriters: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book J
ack Reacher: Never Go Back by Lee Child
Producers: Tom Cruise, Don Granger, Christopher McQuarrie
Executive producers: Paula Wagner, Herb W. Gains, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: Clay Griffith
Costume designer: Lisa Lovaas
Editor: Billy Weber
Music: Henry Jackman

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes

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