Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, profanity, fleeting nudity and some drug content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.2.13
Director/scripter Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is a serviceable thriller: standard-issue Hollywood suspense, with Tom Cruise delivering his usual charm while working his way through a murder mystery that unfolds with the customary blend of plot twists, car chases, gunplay and bare-knuckle fist fights.
In other words, a reasonably diverting way to spend two hours.
That said, fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels will hate this film. With good cause.
His star wattage notwithstanding, Cruise is wrong for the role. Reacher is, quite famously, 6 feet 5 inches tall; he sports a 50-inch chest, weighs between 210 and 250 pounds, and has hands “like two supermarket chickens.” When Reacher chooses to attack a thug, the impact — to borrow from Child’s prose — is akin having a mountain fall on the guy.
Cruise is 5 feet 7 and might hit 170, dripping wet. To say he lacks Reacher’s all-essential physical presence is gross understatement.
At one point during this film, as investigating police are trying to determine whether Reacher is staying at a particular motel, the desk clerk immediately suggests a specific room, insisting they “couldn’t miss this guy.” That line might have made sense in the book, when describing the actual Reacher; it’s a daft bit of dialogue here, when referencing Cruise.
During the months leading up to this film’s release, Child — well aware of the casting controversy — made the magazine and talk-show rounds, attempting peremptory damage control. He pointed out that Reacher has three salient characteristics: He’s always the smartest guy in the room; he’s still and quiet, yet menacing; and he’s huge. Child quite reasonably pointed out that Hollywood inevitably is about compromise, and that getting two of out three should be acceptable.
Fair enough, and yes: Cruise’s Reacher moves stealthily, even when at rest, and he radiates an intriguing aura of latent menace. And yes, he always seems to be the smartest guy in the room.
But that’s only because most of the other people in the room, in this film, are idiots.
And that’s this film’s biggest disappointment: worse, even, than Cruise’s grandstanding insistence that he can too beat up five guys without even breathing hard. (One cannot help snickering, during the opening credits, at the initial line that insists this film is “a Tom Cruise production.” No kidding.)
Child writes smart and ferociously clever novels, and this adaptation is neither.
Which is an even bigger mystery than the one at the center of this storyline, because McQuarrie won a well-deserved Academy Award for writing 1995’s impressively twisty The Usual Suspects, which remains a benchmark of ingenious cinematic suspense. The casting of Cruise may have angered fans, but McQuarrie’s involvement felt inspired.
How tragic, then, that McQuarrie takes every opportunity to dumb-down Child’s tightly plotted novel, ruining or eliminating numerous “reveals” while turning Reacher into little more than a standard-issue blunt instrument.
Consider, as Exhibit A, a scene when Reacher tracks a no-account opponent — the leader of the aforementioned five guys — back to the ramshackle home he shares with his mother. In Child’s One Shot, the novel on which this film is marginally based, Reacher’s subsequent conversation with this forlorn woman is illuminating, even tragic, for what it reveals about her, and her relationship with her wayward son.
OK, fine; that’s unnecessary exposition in this cinematic context. But was it really necessary to transform this encounter into another assault on Reacher, with two goons surprising him — which would, needless to say, never happen — and then blowing their advantage by knocking each other senseless with (respectively) a clumsily wielded crowbar and baseball bat?
Honestly, the scene plays more like an outtake from a Three Stooges short. It’s absolutely ludicrous, and apparently present only so that Cruise can earn a chuckle by peering warily over the lip of the bathtub that, by sheer chance, has saved his ass.
No, no, no.
This isn’t an adaptation of a Lee Child novel; it’s a Tom Cruise vanity production very much in the mold of 2010’s equally silly Knight and Day. Since we know McQuarrie can do much better, we can assume that Cruise wielded ultimate control and shaped Child’s novel according to his own desires.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, but the disappointment is palpable.
Things begin chillingly — particularly given recent real-world events — as a sniper calmly executes five random citizens strolling along an attractive Pittsburgh waterfront park; the killer then vanishes. The case falls to police detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), whose team methodically processes a wealth of forensic evidence that leads, fairly quickly, to James Barr (Joseph Sikora).
Confronted by both Emerson and Rodin (Richard Jenkins), a district attorney who only takes slam-dunk cases, Barr surprises them with a request that they find Reacher. Jack, at ease in Miami, has learned of the killing spree via TV news; he obligingly arrives in Pittsburgh just as Emerson and Rodin have realized that Reacher lives totally off the grid and can't be found ... unless he wishes otherwise.
As it happens, though, Reacher has little interest in helping Barr, much to the dismay of defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who has taken this high-profile case in part to spite her father. Reacher knows Barr from their service days in Kuwait, when the latter was a military-trained sniper who snapped and killed four American soldiers; the case was hushed up only because the victims turned out to be serial rapists. Rather than risk the public censure, the U.S. government buried the case and freed Barr.
Reacher, the military investigator who put that case together, warned Barr that he dare not step out of line again ... or else.
Reacher therefore would seem the last person Barr would want in town ... so why make that request? Helen can’t figure it out, and although Reacher initially intends to leave after confirming that the cops have an airtight case, she correctly deduces that this core question will eat at him, as well.
And after Reacher finds himself in the middle of such a blatantly contrived attempt to “discourage” him with a five-way beating, he knows somebody else is pulling the strings. At which point ... game on.
The always effervescent Pike deftly navigates her intricate role, as Helen initially trusts Reacher but then begins to wonder if his increasingly elaborate conspiracy theory is no more than the fanciful ravings of a social misfit. And yet there’s no denying the growing physical attraction, and one of McQuarrie’s best-staged scenes occurs in Reacher’s motel room, as Helen’s close proximity becomes combustible.
Pike also shines during an encounter with one of the victim’s grieving family members: a scene that seems benign but suddenly, unexpectedly, turns scary.
Robert Duvall pops up in the third act as Cash, a former U.S. Marine who owns a shooting range where Barr practiced his craft. Cash’s part is greatly expanded from that in the novel, to take advantage of Duvall’s engaging presence; he delivers a feisty performance that brings greater snap to the film’s climax.
Oyelowo doesn’t leave much of an impression as Emerson, although he shares one good scene with Cruise, when the cop challenges Reacher on his memory. Famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog plays a nasty, shadowy figure known only as The Zec; Jai Courtney (recognized from TV’s Spartacus) is memorably cold-blooded as Charlie, who soon becomes a persistent thorn in Reacher’s side.
Alexia Fast makes the most of a small part as Sandy, a sultry little vixen with unfortunate taste in men.
Much of this story takes place at night, with Pittsburgh’s mean streets given an additional veneer of menace by veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
But while the film’s climax certainly is exciting and cathartic, McQuarrie takes the plot in an entirely different direction ... and not a very satisfying one. The so-called answers aren’t sufficiently linked to earlier events, which results in an odd paradox: Viewers are more likely to follow the plot if they’ve read Child’s novel ... even though McQuarrie changes so many key details.
All in all, not a very auspicious cinematic debut for Jack Reacher. Sadly, the source novel’s title — One Shot — may be a prophetic indication of this character’s big-screen lifespan.