In one of the most bizarre studio and ego driven productions to be released from a major studio this year, Jack Reacher manages to be too surreal to appeal to action fans and it’s too lunkheaded to appeal to proper cineastes. There’s a good reason why a great trailer for the film doesn’t exist, and that’s because the movie finds a way to be patently impossible to sell to mass audiences. There’s also a great reason why Werner Herzog shows up as a villain, and that’s because the entire movie is completely batshit. It’s entertaining at times, but quite often that entertainment isn’t in ways that writer and director Christopher McQuarrie would have originally intended unless the whole film really is just an elaborate piss take. It’s simultaneously a better version of Alex Cross and a worse reimagining of MacGruber. It’s equally as awesome and awful as that sounds.
After a former army sniper takes out several innocent people seemingly at random one afternoon in Pittsburgh, the accused man refuses to talk before beaten into a coma. The last thing tells the authorities is to contact Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise, for which the film is also A Tom Cruise Production), a former military police officer turned homeless/ladykiller/drifter with nothing to lose. Reacher knows there’s a 99.9% chance the sniper is guilty, but he agrees to help the shooter’s defence lawyer (Rosamund Pike) try to save him from the gas chamber. What the end up uncovering is a ludicrous conspiracy orchestrated by a shadowy Eastern European goon (Werner Herzog) that will lead them to the truth behind these senseless killings.
An admittedly strong and wordless opening sequence that shamelessly apes the work of Brian De Palma to a T, expectations are set accordingly for something different from usual blockbuster fare as David Oyelowo’s primary investigator researches a crime scene through meticulous close ups. Then the second Cruise shows up, all of McQuarrie’s potential quiet tough guy bravado goes out the window since the first time we see him a woman is putting her bra on to leave our hero while Oyelowo and an utterly misused Richard Jenkins as the local DA who also happens to be the defence lawyer’s father narrate just how much of a bad ass ghost of an off the grid slick no bullshit proactive wheelin’ dealin’ limousine ridin’ …. WOOOOOO! …. kiss stealin’ champagne drinking … WOOOOOO! son of a gun! He’s also shirtless and since he has no sexual chemistry with anything in the film with a pulse I’m pretty sure he was just checking her for leeches.
McQuarrie – who won the Academy Award for writing The Usual Suspects – almost seems like he wants to make a thriller in the same vein that Lee Daniels made with The Paperboy this year. His source material (coming from a novel in a series from British writer Lee Child) and screenplay are as depressing and lurid as possible, with several campy winks to cut through the misogyny and a dreadfully inappropriate PG-13 rating that seems to sneak through the censors because it’s Tom Cruise and there’s only one well place F-bomb. But whereas Daniels goes whole hog with how sad and depressing the world around his characters truly are, McQuarrie pulls back and shoots himself in the foot because he’s only been hired to make Tom Cruise look good. It’s ice cold and sadistic, but it wants to also let you know it’s here to have a good time.
Cruise himself seems to be the biggest problem in the film. He’s so concerned with looking like a badass and looking cool (which, to be fair, McQuarrie is excellent at since the movie is if nothing interesting to look at) that he misses the dirty underbelly of his character entirely. Cruise can play down and dirty, with Magnolia and Collateral being prime examples, but he can’t play an antihero. He’s always posturing to the point where his threats to kick wholesale ass come off like lines from a late period Steven Segal film that’s been stretched to 130 overlong minutes.
It doesn’t help that none of the characters around Reacher are ever developed beyond the first seconds they are introduced. As soon as Cruise shows up to help with the case, Oyelowo, Jenkins, and Pike (who plays nothing more than a standard foil to make Reacher seem smarter by comparison) say exactly what they are before metatextually commenting on how awkward the whole experience was. As for the much coveted coup of casting Herzog as the villain, fans should cool their jets since he only appears in three or four scenes and only has a major speaking part in one of them. It’s a great scene and probably the best in the film, but it doesn’t quite save it. Making more of an impact is Cruise’s former Days of Thunder co-star Robert Duvall as a gun range owner and former crack shot that acts as his sidekick for the rest of the film.
McQuarrie at least handles the film’s brief flourishes of action nicely and allows for his characters to make stupid, costly mistakes that change their situation for the worse like dropping things, crack heads fighting each other when they should be going after someone else, and accidentally backing over large objects with their cars. It’s a nice little bit of attention to detail that helps give the feel a realistic grounding when Cruise’s movie star charm threatens to overpower everything. There’s also a pretty decent car chase that doesn’t try to tart things up to make it look like something out of a megabudget movie.
There’s some thrills to be had in Jack Reacher, but none that are really designed to be all that visceral because McQuarrie wants a quieter tone. Cruise doesn’t want the quieter tone and he wants to play a mysterious ass kicking hero when the role isn’t written that way. It’s a strange ride that offers up its share of intentional and unintentional laughs along the way. It does something to the viewer, but it probably won’t be what any of them will expect going in. It’s far from the worst film this year, but nothing in this review can truly prepare anyone wishing to see it.