Friday, October 21, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back — Deftly paced popcorn thrills

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, plenty of action violence, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.21.16

All right; he’s growing on me.

Lee Child’s fans know darn well that — as a physical specimen — Tom Cruise couldn’t be further removed from the author’s depiction of honorable loner Jack Reacher. (Cruise: 5-feet-7, 148 pounds; Reacher: 6-feet-5, 210-250 pounds, with a 50-inch chest.)

Having learned that Samantha — a girl who might (or might not) be his daughter — is in
danger, Reacher (Tom Cruise) and Turner (Cobie Smulders) rush to her home ... only
to find signs of violence, and no trace of the teenager.
In Child’s novel Never Go Back — on which this film is loosely based — Reacher is said to have “a six-pack like a cobbled city street, a chest like a suit of NFL armor, biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue.”

Sounds more like The Incredible Hulk, right? On his best day, it would take three Tom Cruises to make one Jack Reacher.

That said, I’ve gotta give Cruise credit (even if that seems superfluous, since his name pretentiously appears three times in the title credits, before the movie even starts). He’s an impressively fit 54-year-old, and he handles this film’s action scenes and stunt work with reasonable élan. And he’s still a dynamic sprinter, which he demonstrates a few times here.

(Tom Cruise action movies always have running scenes. He obviously believes he looks good doing them.)

All right, all right; enough joshing. Cruise’s second outing as Reacher is more satisfying than its 2012 predecessor, thanks to engaging supporting characters who do much to humanize the narrative. The primary plot is supplemented by a solid secondary mystery, and Cruise has softened the at-times laughably stoic manner he gave Reacher the first time.

I credit director/co-scripter Edward Zwick, who has a history of blending action epics with compelling character development, in films such as Glory, Blood Diamond and Defiance. Zwick and Cruise also worked together on The Last Samurai.

They chose this film’s source material wisely. Cruise’s first Reacher film was based on Child’s ninth novel, One Shot, a rather grim affair that did little but drip with testosterone, and frequently emphasized the many ways that Cruise didn’t look or sound like Reacher. This new film is adapted from Child’s 18th book — Zwick sharing scripting credit with Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz — which is a much shrewder choice, with better mainstream audience appeal.

Zwick opens with a prologue of sorts, which allows Cruise to display the calm assurance with which he greets all perilous or life-threatening situations. It also establishes his connection to Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who has inherited his desk at the headquarters of his former unit, the 110th MP in northeastern Virginia. Zwick deftly establishes that the two have been trading intel and phone calls for awhile, but have yet to meet.

(In Child’s series, this long-distance relationship begins with the 14th book, 61 Hours.)

Deciding to finally lay eyes on the voice behind all those calls, the itinerant Reacher takes a long bus trip with the intent of surprising her; instead, he unexpectedly finds her desk occupied by the amiable but officious Col. Morgan (Holt McCallany). He explains that Turner has been arrested for espionage, and sent to a maximum-security facility.

Hmm. Unlikely, Reacher suspects.

With a bit of digging, he learns that Turner had sent two soldiers to Afghanistan, during the U.S. military draw-down, to investigate suspicious activity by a Blackwater-esque security firm. Turner’s arrest came within hours of her learning that the two operatives had been killed ... by U.S. ordnance.

Not too coincidentally, Reacher realizes that he’s being shadowed by a couple of guys who look like former soldiers-turned-mercenaries.

But before our taciturn hero gets any further, he’s arrested by Morgan on — of all things — a paternity complaint by some woman Reacher’s never heard of. Even more surprising: He supposedly has a 15-year-old daughter named Samantha (Danika Yarosh).

Could it be true?

More to the point, will Reacher and Turner live long enough to solve their respective crises?

OK, yes; Reacher manages to break Turner out of the lock-up, seconds ahead of the same two baddies, and much to the annoyance of Morgan and Espin (Aldis Hodge), the latter formerly under Turner’s command, and now charged with retrieving her. One road trip later, Reacher clandestinely observes Samantha ... at least, until she catches him at it.

“I don’t like being followed,” she says tartly, echoing one of Reacher’s earlier lines (smart scripting touch, that).

That line signals the film’s nicest detail: the fact that the feisty, coldly wary Samantha has many of Reacher’s attributes, from a ferocious independent streak to an instinctive mistrust of anybody in authority. Yarosh plays the part well, her overconfident façade occasionally allowed to crumble. (After all, people are trying to kill her.) If Samantha ultimately bonds too swiftly with Reacher and Turner, well, the movie does run only 118 minutes — as opposed to Child’s 624-page novel (!) — and we’ve gotta move these things along.

Smulders makes Turner a suitably resourceful sidekick, although the character would bristle at the latter term. Despite her fondness for Reacher, Turner resents playing second fiddle to anybody, having dealt with chauvinists her entire military career. Reacher, of course, doesn’t view some of his take-charge choices as sexism; he’s simply accustomed to being the most physically capable guy in the room.

(That argument holds more weight in Child’s novel, given Reacher’s stats. But 5-feet-8 Smulders, at somewhere north of 140 pounds, looks like she could give Cruise a run for his money. Which makes the film version of this ongoing squabble sound a bit silly.)

Smulders also knows the action-film territory, having garnered plenty of fan cred as SHIELD agent Maria Hill in numerous big-screen Marvel Universe epics, along with several appearances on TV’s Agents of SHIELD. Turner is cut from the same rugged, go-getter cloth, with just enough softness to make her concern for Samantha seem reasonable.

Patrick Heusinger is suitably scary as an unnamed assassin known only as “The Hunter,” hired by the dirty-dealing security firm to dispose of Reacher, Hunter and anybody else who gets too curious. (Given The Hunter’s ruthless efficiency, one does wonder why he keeps sending B-teams after Reacher, as opposed to handling the assignment himself.)

Robert Knepper displays a fine malevolent scowl as Gen. Harkness, the man apparently behind the entire conspiracy; Madalyn Horcher makes the most of her supporting role as Sgt. Leach, who never doubts — not for a second — that Reacher and Turner have been railroaded.

The fight scenes are choreographed tightly by editor Billy Weber and stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood; the latter also helmed the action sequences in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. These are brutal, post-Bourne, mano a mano melees, staged for maximum, bone-crunching tension: effective, if occasionally overlong.

The nicely sculpted supporting roles aside, the film’s success obviously rests on Cruise’s shoulders. Although occasionally feeling like a vanity project — Cruise finds several opportunities to shed his shirt — such hiccups are offset by his utter sincerity in the role. His Reacher may not be large enough to be intimidating, but Cruise definitely projects the man’s intelligence, cunning and quiet intensity.

Along with, this time out, a bit of humor. Among other subtle thespic skills, Cruise knows how to flick his eyes from one direction to another, for maximum emotional impact: a small gesture, but always telling. And his faint smiles, seen only occasionally, are equally effective.

All told, then, this second Jack Reacher outing is efficient popcorn entertainment: not as clever or audacious as The Accountant — which it will battle for box-office dominance — but just about as entertaining.

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