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I’m the guy you didn’t count on.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
(2016)

(SPOILERS) It was probably inevitable that Tom Cruise’s dedication to his declining “brand” meant Jack Reacher would renounce his stone-cold, death-machine mantle almost as soon as he had found his footing. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. As other commentators have noted, with nineteen novels to choose from, what were the chances Cruise would pick the one that softens the character up, giving him a potential daughter and (only ever potential) love interest to pick away at his concealed human side?


But then Cruise, amid his scientological myopia, probably thought he was playing safe, to his strengths, despite Jack Reacher getting a sequel based on the slenderest of threads (courtesy of post-theatrical income streams) and the vocal outcry about the half-pint not being of suitable altitude to fill Reacher’s heavyweight boots. He clearly felt he needed to steer the character further off piste from the self-sufficient introvert, which is hardly likely to win him acclaim from Reacher devotees. The first movie was based on One Shot, the ninth Reacher novel, while this takes a flying leap into the eighteenth. But “character development” is the sustenance of the deluded Hollywood star, so playing a stoic, inexpressive knight errant over the course of a series of movies, from a guy who really, really likes to flash that perfect grin, just wasn’t on the cards (you only need to look as far as George Miller and Mad Max to see where Cruise is fatally misguided).


It wouldn’t matter quite so much if there was any real spark to the relationships, but the friction between Jack and wayward teen Samantha (Danika Yarosh; I don’t know her career outside of this, but if she isn’t in real life she does a remarkable job of playing a highly irritating miscreant here – Reacher can count himself lucky he doesn’t turn out to be pater familias), and with his military contact Turner (Cobie Smulders, who does anything but, and is as entirely absent of personality as in everything else I’ve seen her, which to be fair is pretty much Marvel movies). Smulder’s been framed for murder, with a conveniently/
annoyingly tangential plotline regarding Samantha’s possible parentage encouraging an “exploration” of Jack’s difficult loner status (he’s like a Bruce Banner who doesn’t turn green).


For a reasonable stretch, Never Go Back is an effective-enough, serviceable thriller, even given that director Edward Zwick, never that dynamic or invested a director but big on his ineffectual and frequently self-sabotaging Hollywood version of social conscience, doesn’t add much to the proceedings. And, given the bang-up job Christopher McQuarrie did on the original, positively detracts from it in places. There’s little here that couldn’t have been replicated by a TV movie (which surely, after Never Go Back inevitably underwhelms at the box office, will end up as the character’s natural home, minus one wee Tommy boy), and while some of the action is serviceable (notably Jack extracting himself and Turner from military custody, and a sequence on a plane in which Jack proficiently deals with two assassins), others (a one-versus-four fight in a New Orleans warehouse) lack the clear, precise cutting and staging McQuarrie brought to the table.


The plot isn’t really much of a mystery, but the screenplay (from Richard Wenk, Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz) is busy enough that this doesn’t really matter until we alight in New Orleans. It’s at this point that Never Goes Back curls into a ball and admits defeat. The pace slackens, and the assembled clichés of characters are confirmed as exactly and as unflatteringly thin as they are, co-mingling with similarly unsatisfactory plot developments, ones that come from the plot bible of idiots required to do idiot things in order to imperil themselves (usually reserved for horror movie protagonists). Such that Samantha, who is so incredibly streetwise and a chip off the old block (despite being not really) in her can-do skills, manages to be stupid enough to repeatedly blunder into situations where she can be traced or hunted down. This is TV movie writing, but TV movie writing of 20 years ago (or more), complete with a snarling henchman (Patrick Heusinger, entirely one note, making you long for the charisma of Jai Courtney in the original: Jai Bless) whose entire motivation is to make Jack feel pain like he’s never felt before, and other such twittery.


Also on hand is Robert Knepper as the budget-driven B-baddie, who has so little screen time, Zwick and co probably thought it pointless to try and replicate the surprise success of Werner Herzog last time. Or maybe they were afraid any one with substance would overshadow Tom? Knepper’s the former general in charge of a rogue private military outfit (is there any other kind? I guess the operatives are just following through with what they were taught in the regular army), the easy go-to of a studio with an insufficient blank slate of bad guys these days (it’s them or Russians, since who cares about offending Russians; on the contrary, it appears to be actively encouraged!) As such, Zwick can rest assured his movie is vaguely about something: opposed to the privatisation of the military, and by inference the incremental corporatisation/capitalisation of all public services (one might take this as a Democrat stance, but we know Hillary is in favour of all those things and then some); after all, that $600bn+ per annum is money well spent, isn’t it?


How is Tom faring, in his mid-50s and attempting to look a decade younger? Well, he pulls it off, depending on how moisturised he is and the un/flattering nature of Oliver Wood’s photography for the shot in question (it varies); Cruise has a testing time ahead, as he doesn’t have a good face for aging with character. He’ll just end up looking doughy.


Which is a by-the-by, but indicative that, aside from some cool, no-shit-taken violence (it’s a little worrying, unless he meant it in some kind of untranslatably ironic sense, that Child has “done a fair amount of headbutting. It’s an awesome manoeuvre”; way to go, dude!), there’s little that leaves an impression character-wise, certainly nothing (M:I at least gives him daredevil stunts to perform) that would encourage understanding of why he’s seized on this as only his second “franchise”; one can only assume it’s down to fear of diminishing star status. We can be thankful at least that, when Jack threatens to break Heusinger’s arms, legs and neck, he actually does exactly that, even if Zwick’s too wet to really get into it.


Cruise has a reteam with Doug Liman next year for American Made (it’s always iffy putting “America” in a title; Mena may have been no more illuminating – it covers some of the same terrain as Narcos – but is far less generic) and The Mummy, which I’d be far more intrigued by if an inexperienced writer-turned-director wasn’t calling the shots. But who knows, maybe Cruise has him sussed; it worked out with McQuarrie and then some. Zwick, though continues going his less-than-bold, ineffectual way, dealing out forgettable features wherever he treads.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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