Silver Screen: Jack Reacher ***
Jack Reacher is based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child, but the title has been changed from Child's somewhat vague moniker to the even more vague name of the eponymous lead character. It's a lateral move. But perhaps a more fitting title might be simply: Tom Cruise.
Make no mistake, this is a Tom Cruise vehicle developed and produced by Tom Cruise for the purposes of showing you all the things that Tom Cruise can do. The movie's biggest surprise is that you are not offered an opportunity to purchase your own Tom Cruise after the credits roll. The film is less a great story that demands telling than it is a perfectly calibrated delivery system to get Tom Cruise to the masses, and to showcase certain undeniable facts: That Tom Cruise still looks very young, that Tom Cruise can run very fast, that despite his diminutive size Tom Cruise can be quite intimidating, et cetera.
At fifty, Cruise remains America's most precocious, attention-starved child. There's a certain plaintive quality to his movies as he beseeches us, like a ten-year-old calling to a mother lying poolside just trying to relax, to watch-this-next-dive-he's-going-to-make-it's-going-to-be-a-really-good-dive-just-watch-Mom-come-on-you-gotta-watch.
In both his best and worst performances, what comes across most clearly is Cruise’s effort. Cruise is striving to achieve a specific effect, and it seems equally important to him that you know just how hard he's working. He wears the same mask of flinty determination when he's running after a killer, battling aliens, courting an onscreen love interest, plotting to kill Hitler, or having a conversation. It's not surprising then that his best role, in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, used that needy energy in service of a character who himself took great pains to highlight the sheer force of his will.
This assessment is not meant entirely as a dig. The force of Cruise's will is truly impressive. Through sheer determination he not only became one of the biggest American movie stars, he's stayed atop the Hollywood heap longer than Joseph Gordon-Levitt or the Hemsworth brothers have been alive.
But the force of this will inevitably subsumes his characters into the broader Cruisian archetype. Thus Jack Reacher becomes pretty much indistinguishable from Mission Impossible's Ethan Hunt, which is to say a man of action with a non-existent interior life whose only recourse between stunts is to wait, machine-like, for the next sign of trouble. It's a far cry from the Jack Reacher described in Lee Child's popular novel series, which is a nifty hybrid of noir-tinged mystery, military espionage, and action thriller. The books are silly and tremendously fun, but anchored by the nomadic Reacher's loneliness and sense of social responsibility.
But Cruise's Jack Reacher has no time for regrets or crises of conscience, he's a superman on a mission, the mission here being to track down a possible conspiracy behind what seems at first like a random mass murder.
Recent, terrifying real-world events make Jack Reacher's excellent opening even more harrowing. Director Christopher McQuarrie expertly stages the movie's prologue as an entirely wordless police procedural sequence in which a sniper silently establishes a position in a parking garage across from an empty baseball stadium and picks off five pedestrians in a few frantic seconds. Soon the police arrive, led by detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), collect evidence, and round up the obvious suspect, an ex-military sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora). But despite fitting the profile in every way, Barr insists on his innocence and demands to speak to only one person: Tom Cruise. Er, Jack Reacher.
Reacher is an ex-military policeman who failed to bring Barr to justice after an ugly shootout overseas. Reacher is as certain that Barr didn't perpetrate the ballpark shootings as he is that Barr did commit murder while in the service. To find the real killer, he teams up with a defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) whose father (Richard Jenkins) happens to be the district attorney prosecuting the case against Barr.
It's a fine setup to a thriller with a distinctive throwback vibe. The hero is as disinterested in using technology to solve crimes as director McQuarrie is of using technology to render them. Stunts and suspense are prioritized over computer-generated effects. In a movie landscape so thoroughly bedazzled by digital wizardry, the old-school action feels like sweet relief. At times, though, it's also overly familiar: This is the kind of movie in which the protagonist will inevitably drive a car the wrong direction down a busy one-way street, and decline to conveniently shoot the villain when he can toss his weapon aside and risk his life in a mano-a-mano fight.
Child's brisk plotting comes through in McQuarrie's script, but the movie never makes a case for itself as anything more than an enjoyable but forgettable diversion. The film's general purposelessness is weirdly at odds with Cruise's matchless intensity, but who has time to consider that when he's already busy sprinting toward his next mission?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.