Who are you, Mister?” a young woman asks Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), and it’s a question that recurs, not always quite so politely, throughout the movie that bears Reacher’s name. He may be an elusive individual with a sketchy background — ex-military, no fixed address, a single shirt to his name — but as an archetype he is easy enough to recognise. He is a cousin of Shane and Caine (from the old Kung Fu television series) and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name: a paladin without portfolio who travels from town to town, dispensing righteous violence and hard-boiled aphorisms.
“It’s just what guys like me do,” Reacher says wearily at one point, though he could say it at just about any point.
Guys like him are mythical creatures, fantasy figures who dispense rough justice when civic institutions fail. Part comic-book superhero, part Old West vigilante and wholly preposterous, Reacher is far less enigmatic than he or anyone else in the movie thinks he is. And also less interesting.
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie and adapted from One Shot, the ninth in Lee Child’s series of macho best-sellers, Jack Reacher brings its hero to Pittsburgh, where a sniper has just shot down five innocent people, including a nanny accompanying a small child, in broad daylight. The suspected shooter (Joseph Sikora) lies in a coma — after scrawling “Get Jack Reacher” on a pad in lieu of a confession — with a seemingly airtight case against him. Shell casings, fingerprints at the scene, security-camera video, all the usual stuff that disciplined television crime-show viewers will recognise as solid circumstantial evidence.
But the man’s lawyer, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), hires Reacher anyway, possibly because she thinks he might keep her client off death row, and possibly because she, like every other woman in (and presumably beyond) the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is made weak in the knees by Reacher’s off-the-charts sexual magnetism.
Helen also has some daddy issues, mainly that her daddy (Richard Jenkins) is the district attorney prosecuting the presumed killer. He and the lead detective on the case (David Oyelowo) are obviously too sure of themselves to be trusted, and even before we meet a character known as the Zec (Werner Herzog, whose casting raises a brief film-geek frisson) we know that the poor fellow in the coma is a patsy. We also know, just because of the kind of guy Jack Reacher is, that the body count is sure to rise.
And so Jack Reacher lumbers through a series of beatings, shootings and bludgeonings on its way to a climactic, not terribly surprising showdown. There is a pretty good car chase and a lot of very bad dialogue.
McQuarrie, on his second outing as a director (his screenplays include The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie), seems more suited to action scenes than to the ostensibly simpler task of filming people talking. Nearly every conversation is stilted and lame, laden with the kind of repartee that might strike you as witty if you had no sense of humour.
The self-confident, super-competent Reacher is a character Cruise could play in his sleep, which is pretty much what he does. Pike seems a bit more agitated, perhaps because she is too refined an actress for the kind of pulpy sincerity the movie requires. She tries very hard to make sense of Helen’s emotions and motives, which is a hopeless task, since the character is an inexplicable collage of empathy, ambition and neediness, on hand to awaken Reacher’s chivalrous impulses and to quiver with confused desire whenever he is in the room.
Apart from the car chase, the only real fun in Jack Reacher comes from Herzog and Robert Duvall, called in near the end for some marvellously gratuitous scenery chewing as a gruff former Marine. They enliven the movie’s atmosphere of weary brutality for a few moments, but they also call attention to the dullness of their dramatic surroundings.
Jack Reacher (u/a)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, James Martin Kelly, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog
Running time: 130 minutes