'Jack Reacher 2': Why Paramount and Tom Cruise Bet on a Risky Sequel

Jack Reacher- Never Go Back - Still 1 - Tom Cruise Cobie Smulders - H - 2016
David James/Paramount Pictures

The first 'Jack Reacher' wasn't considered a big win at the U.S. box office, but generated strong revenue from home entertainment and established a promising foothold overseas.

With the new sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions are hoping to establish a mid-range franchise showcasing Tom Cruise's action skills. But as the $60 million movie opens this weekend in North America and more than 40 foreign markets, including China, it's a risky gamble.

The first Jack Reacher, which hit theaters in December 2012, wasn't considered a huge win, earning $218.3 million worldwide. At the time, Paramount insiders said the $50 million film would have to gross $250 million globally to warrant a follow-up.

When the studio reviewed the numbers, though, it decided there was potential upside in the Jack Reacher character, an American ex-military policeman and drifter created by Lee Child in a series of popular macho novels. The movie did brisk business in the home entertainment market, signaling that consumers liked Cruise in the role.

And while the first film topped out at $80 million domestically, it established a real foothold overseas, where it grossed $138.3 million. (Generally speaking, Cruise remains a far bigger star offshore than he is in the States, especially in growing Asian markets.)

If there's a model that Paramount is hoping Jack Reacher could emulate it's Fox's Taken franchise, starring Liam Neeson as another two-fisted action hero. In 2009, the first Taken collected  $81.8 million abroad; Taken 2 followed with $236 million from foreign markets; and then Taken 3 took in another $237.2 million overseas.

Still, some have wondered why Cruise, who headlines Paramount's Mission: Impossible series, would want to spend some of his own star capital on a similar, if less flashy, action franchise. Theorizes box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, "Cruise is one of the few actors working today that could pull off a simultaneous franchise double feature with two action-oriented characters. Both franchises showcase different sides of his butt-kicking, take no prisoners nature. Audiences who are waiting for the next Mission: Impossible movie can get their Cruise action movie fix with Reacher."

While the last Mission: Impossible, the fifth in the series, was released in 2015, the sixth installment, which hit a snag in pre-production until Cruise's salary could be negotiated, won't begin filming until 2017.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, directed by Edward Zwick (following in the footsteps of Christopher McQuarrie, who helmed the first film) isn't winning over critics, though. Its current score on Rotten Tomatoes is 39 percent, compared to 62 percent for the first film. Prerelease tracking suggests Never Go Back will open in the $20 million range — and it may find itself in a battle for the top box-office spot with Tyler Perry's Boo! A Madea Halloween.

Last weekend, The Accountant, another male-oriented film, was similarly expected to earn about $20 million, but it hit $24.7 million during its opening weekend thanks to Ben Affleck's star status. It remains to be seen whether Cruise can deliver the same.

"With Paramount's heavy investment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, another Jack Reacher film might makes sense on paper. Keep Tom happy, and keep the sequels coming," says Jeff Bock, another box-office analyst.  "But it feels like they are on cruise control, and not in a good way."

Paramount declined comment, but the studio and Skydance, which are 50-50 partners on the project, have undertaken a major marketing push for Never Go Back, supported by Cruise, who did a weeklong publicity tour in China.

The energetic star's trip to the Middle Kingdom was followed last weekend by a fan event in New Orleans, where the movie is once again set. And this week he appeared on both ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! and CBS' The Late Late Show with James Corden, where he and Corden did a skit reenacting many of the actor's films that went viral.

Playing to the heartland crowd in the U.S., Paramount also has marketed Never Gone Back to members of the military, hosting screenings on bases across the U.S. 

Ultimately, though, the success of Never Go Back will likely hinge on its performance internationally, and so Cruise's globe-trotting isn't over. Today, he'll head to Europe, making stops in London — Child is British — and Berlin. Later, he'll travel to South Korea and then Japan, where his star wattage remains high. The first Jack Reacher earned $11 million at the Japanese box office, a tidy sum for an action-thriller.