‘Jack Reacher’ movie review: Tom Cruise in crackling Lee Child thriller

A crackling little thriller from the series of novels by Lee Child (taking its plot from One Shot, in particular), Jack Reacher is an especially solid ride that deserves a lot more credit than it has received. Opening in the midst of awards season, this low-key B-movie programmer writ large may have been subject to unfair expectations, but it’s not a million miles away from last year’s critical darling, Drive.

It doesn’t have that film’s artistic ambition, shocking brutality (despite frequent PG-13 violence), or eclectic soundtrack (the original score by Joe Kraemer is an unmemorable dud), but otherwise, this is the kind of noirish potboiler that just isn’t made anymore, but can be plenty entertaining on its own terms. It’s John Grisham-like detective plotting spiced up with a heavy (if infrequent) dose of action. 

Central criticism: the casting of Tom Cruise as the titular Jack Reacher, who is described in the novels as 6’5’’ tall and 250 pounds. From someone who hasn’t read the books, Cruise doesn’t seem entirely like a bad fit here. Still, he doesn’t command the role as he has others, with his trademark smile replaced by a more sullen demeanor. One real negative: two (or three, or four…) too many unnecessary shots of random women making goo-goo eyes in Reacher’s presence (Cruise also served as producer here).

The film’s terrifying credit sequence features a lone sniper shooting five random people outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The dialogue-less opening is expertly crafted, but badly timed, recalling the recent Newtown tragedy; the film’s US premiere was postponed following the school shooting (this isn’t the only recent film to be affected by a real-life tragedy: Gangster Squad, which featured a scene of gunmen opening fire in a crowded cinema, was reshot and pushed back to a January US release following the Aurora Dark Knight Rises shooting).

James Barr, an ex-army sniper, is arrested for the crime under compelling, seemingly irrefutable evidence. But we know something the characters in the film don’t (yet): Barr is innocent. During interrogation by D.A. Rodin (Richard Jenkins) and Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), Barr makes only one statement: “get me Jack Reacher”.

Jack Reacher is a “ghost”, an ex-army investigator who fell off the grid when he last entered the US: no phone records, credit records, registered vehicles. Authorities have no way of contacting him, but he comes to Pittsburgh after he sees Barr’s picture in news reports.

Reacher has no interest in helping Barr, who is now in a coma, but he knows something, and teams up with defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), daughter of the D.A., to look into the case. This eventually brings him into contact with the real killer (Jai Courtney) and the mysterious “Zec” (German director Werner Herzog, whose presence here is unexpected but entirely welcome).

Jack Reacher was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind The Usual Suspects. He displays as sure a hand here as he did in his only other film as a director, the underrated Way of the Gun: this is a terrific suspenser, perfectly paced and presented. I love the perspective we have right from the outset: not every plot development in a thriller needs to be presented as a twist.

McQuarrie also displays a deft hand with action scenes, with some smoothly edited hand-to-hand fights and a superb car chase that isn’t about speed but about strategy, recalling the memorable (and, likely, slowest-ever) chase scene in The Way of the Gun. Dialogue is also a standout, spouted in that methodical David Mamet style (Cruise, in particular, has a number of terrific lines).

Length, on the other hand, might be a turnoff for some; this material feels like it should be 90-100 minutes, but the film – which is entirely plot-driven, with very little character work (even on Reacher, who has no arc) – clocks in at 130 minutes. It never feels slow, but by the time the routine-ish climax unfolds, the film starts to wear out its welcome.

Jack Reacher was intended to be the initial entry in a franchise based on the Lee Child novels, but tepid critical reception and low US box office numbers may have quashed that hope. Still, this is about as good as the genre’s formulaic nature can allow for, and highly recommended for thriller fans; if you want to see how low the genre can dip, wait a couple weeks for Alex Cross.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *