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Jack Reacher is an old-fashioned type of guy — he doesn’t use a cell phone or credit cards, he travels by bus — and the first film adaptation of one of Lee Child’s Reacher novels has a correspondingly gritty, low-tech, real-muscle appeal. Tom Cruise might not be the 6-foot-5 rock described in the books, but he makes the title role fit him like a latex glove in a winning turn that could spawn a popular new franchise for the star, if public reaction to Christopher McQuarrie’s film is as strong as its fun quotient warrants.
The British television veteran Child wrote his first Reacher novel in 1997 and since then has cranked out 16 more, of which One Shot, the basis for Jack Reacher, was the ninth. The central character, an Army vet and military policeman who knows all there is to know about weapons and hand-to-hand combat, possesses the same appeal as classic Western heroes — he’s a loner, self-sufficient, a man of few words who comes and goes without explanation — mixed with a touch of Philip Marlowe’s tough determination to peel back layers of deception and official cant to arrive at a satisfying form of justice. He also is hard as nails physically, as he proves in fight after fight.
In short, he’s a great male fantasy figure. Happily, Cruise plays him with no fuss in a direct, pared-down way with little sense of amped-up intensity or vanity; he can even take a joke at his own expense, as when he’s stripped to the waist in a motel room, and Rosamund Pike says, “Could you put your shirt on, please?”
Jack Reacher, then, is all business, taking a break from whatever he does with the rest of his time to help solve a case that initially looks open and shut. The disturbing opening — which, like much of the film, is shot and cut with taut precision — shows a sniper position himself in a parking garage across the water from Pittsburgh’s baseball stadium and methodically picks off what looks to be five random targets on the riverfront promenade.
Quickly apprehended, the apparent shooter is seriously roughed up and mysteriously asks for Jack Reacher, who then equally mysteriously appears as if from nowhere to begin assessing the situation. The other key players include Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), who made the arrest; District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins); and Helen Rodin (Pike), the hospitalized suspect’s savvy lawyer who just happens to be the DA’s daughter, a relationship fraught with personal and professional tensions.
Reacher knew the accused from their Iraq War days and impressively analyzes why Helen’s client was a perfect candidate for going off the deep end and committing such a horrific crime. At the same time, he suggests she learn everything she can about the victims, which prompts her to think that Reacher, who’d been off the grid for two years before this, might be a bit of a conspiracy freak.
As it becomes evident, however, it’s normal for Reacher’s very focused mind to be two or three steps ahead of everyone else’s. While the plot is not complex — it’s simplicity itself compared to McQuarrie’s labyrinthine classic The Usual Suspects — it nonetheless provides the tasty satisfactions of sturdy mystery thrillers of yore, in which you know things are not what they appear and you’re happy to be led by a capable expert through a maze of obstacles and suspicious characters to a satisfying denouement.
Said suspicious characters begin to accumulate when five stupid guys challenge Reacher to a fight outside a bar after he allegedly has dissed their friend Sandy (Alexia Fast). Big mistake on their part; Reacher takes them down in a bone-crunching display of scary combat techniques. It’s the first of several intense physical encounters in which Cruise puts on an impressive show of quite credible mano a mano skills, which, refreshingly, are not edited in a flurry of cuts designed to obscure either an aging star’s inadequacy or the participation of a stunt double.
Another action sequence that delivers the goods and doesn’t cheat is an extended nocturnal car chase through Pittsburgh streets that harks back to the propulsive realism of Bullitt and The French Connection days; it’s no coincidence that the car Reacher drives is a 1970 Chevy Chevelle. As it races through the city’s shadowy canyons, the set piece delivers a fine sense of real speed and is prolonged enough to achieve a sense of genuine occasion rather than seeming just an obligatory action interlude to offset the talk scenes.
The actual unraveling of the plot might contain limited surprises, but again, McQuarrie provides satisfactions with the surprise casting of director Werner Herzog as a creepy bad guy, introducing Robert Duvall as a late-appearing key character and setting his action climax at night in a visually arresting quarry that carries the connotations of both a wartime battlefield and an ancient combat arena. The writer-director, whose behind-the-camera skills have jumped considerably since his debut on The Way of the Gun a dozen years ago, delivers the narrative and the visuals with clarity, dispatch and style, aided greatly by Caleb Deschanel’s bracingly sharp cinematography, Jim Bissell’s nuanced production design and on-the-mark editing by Kevin Stitt that never calls attention to itself and helps 130 minutes go by in what feels like less than two hours.
At least in terms of his action-film portfolio, Cruise is in top form here; if he feels like working really hard as a star and producer, he could alternate big-budget Mission: Impossible outings with less expensive Jack Reacher installments for a number of years, with other projects slipped in between them. Other important castmembers are classy, led by the ever-welcome Pike as the smart but conflicted lawyer and not-quite love interest, Jenkins as her suspicious dad and Oyelowo as the lead investigator.
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