In the mold of Bob Lee Swagger, Dirk Pitt and Alex Cross, “Jack Reacher” is right at home among pulp-fiction tough guys Paramount has tried to turn into franchises — this relatively generic attempt based on Lee Child’s bestselling suspenser “One Shot.” Reacher is a brawny action figure whose exploits would have been a good fit for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone back in the day, but feel less fun when delegated to a leading man like Tom Cruise. The star is too charismatic to play someone so cold-blooded, and his fans likely won’t appreciate the stretch.
Best case, a role like Reacher would give Cruise another chance to tap into his single-minded “Collateral” killer, but as written, he comes across as more of a weary boy scout, snuffing much of the energy that makes him so appealing. Whereas the hyperkinetic actor looks best on the run, Reacher is a slow-moving, six-and-a-half-foot enforcer — the kind of guy Cruise should be outwitting, not playing.
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Living off the grid, the man’s a “ghost,” an ex-military inspector whose appearance at the scene of any crime usually means someone’s in for a reckoning. As imagined by Child, he’s a deliberately mysterious character, a drifter without a driver’s license or any permanent possessions who walks into a Goodwill store, buys a used leather jacket and donates his old duds on the way out.
Reacher’s bigscreen debut opens with a public shooting, a nasty bit of business depicted “Dirty Harry”-style through the scope of the sniper’s rifle. The marksman fires six shots, killing five, leaving behind clues that quickly lead to the arrest of trigger-happy Army vet James Barr (Joseph Sikora), whom Reacher remembers from the service.
Det. Emerson (David Oyelowo, playing it savvy) nabs the suspect, and the D.A. (Richard Jenkins) is ready to convict. The prosecutor never loses a case, though his legal-eagle daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike) is convinced Dad’s methods have put innocent men on Death Row, so she picks this seemingly impossible opportunity to go head-to-head with him in court by defending Barr. Enter Reacher, ready to send her client straight to hell, when Helen convinces him to assist her in the suspect’s defense.
In a different kind of Cruise movie, Reacher would take her breath away in a soft-focus sex scene. Here, the star toys with those expectations, appearing shirtless in the lawyer’s hotel room long enough to generate sexual tension, then walking out before she can get the wrong idea. The only pleasure this man takes is in punishing bad guys, and behind this particular scheme lurks a wonderfully evil Werner Herzog, whose rare acting role more than justifies the price of admission for fans of the heavily accented director.
That’s hardly the demo Paramount is aiming for, however. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s challenge ultimately centers on finding ways to distinguish his mostly derivative script, based on the kind of guilty-pleasure read one buys at the airport and leaves on the seat. The setup may be clunky and the character a cliche, but the film looks terrific (courtesy of d.p. Caleb Deschanel), and somewhat redeems its silliness through action, featuring several satisfying hand-to-hand altercations, a tense car chase and a well-staged climactic shootout in a gravel quarry.
Seeing as how Child’s Reacher novels are composed mostly of terse sentences, three to five words apiece, McQuarrie follows suit with his adaptation, delivering dialogue and story in sharp little jabs. Every so often, McQuarrie’s soundbite script gives Cruise a line he can really relish, as when Reacher tells the real sniper, “You killed that girl to put me in a frame, and I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot.”
That’s the kind of movie “Jack Reacher” aspires to be, but within the confines of its PG-13 rating, such ruthlessness doesn’t fly. “You think I’m a hero,” Cruise hisses, as if to suggest otherwise, and then the character proceeds to behave like one, risking his life — with the help of a welcome old acquaintance (Robert Duvall) — to try to rescue the kidnapped Helen from an obvious trap.
Considering Reacher’s ambivalence toward romance, this unofficial “Days of Thunder” reunion brings a welcome chemistry to the last act. With an assist from second unit director Paul Jennings, the pic goes out with a bang, sending Reacher into a treacherous shooting match between two expert marksmen, armed with only a knife. It’s not a persona Cruise fans are likely to see again, so for auds eager to see the star in badass mode, this may be their one shot.