As they say in sensationalist movie-poster-speak, “Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher.” Except in this case, that should perhaps be amended to “Tom Cruise is only kind of Jack Reacher.” The straight-laced megastar is, frankly, miscast as our eponymous hero, an ex-military policeman turned vigilante/detective who lives off the grid. Of course, this is not news to fans of the popular book series by Lee Child, who have been grumbling since Cruise first signed on. These days, the lamentations of the devoted are as expected as they are usually unfounded, but in this case they have a point. While Cruise smolders for justice and dispatches bad guys with equal amounts of conviction, there are approximately zero lines of a hard life etched on his face; there is no hint of the horrors of the war in Iraq in his eyes.
Cruise’s casting is a prime example of Hollywood artifice that’s also emblematic of the rest of the film, which constantly sacrifices believability in the name of entertainment. The central mystery concerns a sniper attack that kills five people outside the PNC Park baseball stadium in Pittsburgh. When the prime suspect (Joseph Sikora) is questioned, his sole response is to write “Get Jack Reacher” on a sheet of paper in lieu of a confession. The suspect isn’t mute, nor is he otherwise injured, so why doesn’t he just, you know, speak? Because it wouldn’t be nearly as cool that way. Why is it okay for the defense attorney who takes his case (Rosamund Pike) to be the daughter of the prosecuting attorney (Richard Jenkins), which seems to represent a colossal conflict of interest? Because the script says so, shhh.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing about Jack Reacher though, is that despite these and many other instances of plot and character deviations from reality, it actually kind of works. It’s bolstered by some effectively brutal fight choreography, a chilling performance by documentarian Werner Herzog as a James Bond-type villain, and a third-act appearance from the great Robert Duvall. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, who penned the crime classic The Usual Suspects, knows how to create tension, and makes occasionally interesting use of the camera (though he uses the slow, revealing pan shot one time too many). McQuarrie’s screenplay is sometimes hammy, sometimes too self-aware, but also sometimes pretty funny.
So what starts off ostensibly as a gritty procedural about the tolls of war turns out to be a pulp confection. It’s weightless but entertaining, the very definition of a guilty pleasure. But the deep, dark secret of Jack Reacher is that it doesn’t care. And you may not, either.
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay); Lee Child (novel)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012