Blessed with one of the worst movie posters in recent memory (a Photoshop job that makes Cruise look like one of those giant bobbleheads; not the one heading up this review, mercifully) and a blandest of the bland title, this turns out to be a highly enjoyable back-to-basics thriller. Sophomore director Christopher McQuarrie (also adapting Lee Childs’ novel One Shot) brings a welcome visceral quality to the action, making a fairly basic detective plot seem like a breath of fresh air when the competition tends to be CGI’d up to the eyeballs.
Ex-military policeman, now Littlest Hobo-like drifter, Jack Reacher arrives in Pittsburgh (or, at least, that’s where it was filmed) to investigate a lone gunman shooting spree. The alleged shooter is someone he investigated years ago, so Jack is surprised to conclude that the man is innocent and that these were not just random killings. He teams up with a defence lawyer (Rosamund Pike) and at every turn reveals his highly-honed deductive skills, as well as engaging in frequent bouts of fisticuffs.
Part of the appeal is how traditional the storyline is, in an age of plot construction that is more about tying set pieces together than turning in a properly crafted script. No doubt due to its pulpy source material., this has a proper mystery to be solved before it turns its attention to Jack bringing justice. And McQuarrie knows his structure such that, overlong though it is, you’re kept involved throughout. The less successful aspects never really dent enjoyment, and one suspects they were present in the source material. The inevitable revelation of a bad guy you thought was a good guy has insufficient motivation, so it seems like an enormous convenience. Elsewhere, the myth-making dialogue concerning Reacher’s skills and philosophy crosses the boundary from mildly cheesy into out-and-out laughable.
But the director brings a sure eye to the action and has a strong sense of pacing. When Jack has a fight it’s satisfying not just because of the classic scenario of the outnumbered protagonist outmatching his opponents but because McQuarrie ensures the framing and cutting are clean and crisp. There’s a car chase where the camera repeatedly pulls up against the front end of Reacher’s car, making the sequence exhilaratingly immediate and physical; it’s not a new technique, but the employment of it feels vital.
Cruise has, of course, been much criticised for taking on the role of Reacher, as he bears no resemblance to the character in the books. I can’t call him on that, not having read any of them. For much of the time his performance wouldn’t be out of place in the average non-Jack Reacher Cruise movie, except that his dialogue is noticeably sharper and less self-congratulatory (it’s others who worship Reacher’s superheroics). The main difference is that there’s no watering down of the character’s moral code, which sees him behaving in a manner close to a Charles Bronson-type than your traditional Cruise hero.
The supporting cast include a couple of stand-out turns. Wernor Herzog, made up with a glassy contact lens and missing digits, is a believable representation of evil incarnate. His character’s name (the Zec) sounds like something out of kid’s cartoon, however. Jai Courtney, soon to be seen as John McClane’s son, steals the film from Cruise whenever he appears. It’s a younger, more maliciously charismatic, role that reminds you that Hollywood’s premier Scientologist is getting on a bit. Pike’s fine but Richard Jenkins and David Oyelowo are wasted in underwritten parts.
It looks like a Jack Reacher follow-up hinges on the international territories where the film is yet to open. But if it’s that touch-and-go I wouldn’t bet on it. A shame, as there’s potential here for a couple more (as long as the plots continue to be involving; character development clearly isn’t the key to Lee Childs’ series). Still, if nothing else it has provided Christopher McQuarrie with a strong calling for his next stint behind the megaphone (Mission: Impossible 5 has been rumoured).