Jack Reacher was intended by its studio and its producer/star Tom Cruise as spirited holiday-vacation entertainment, a fun action movie that would surely launch a franchise and print money for a long time to come. Instead, the movie has the bad fortune to be the first violent thriller to appear post-Newtown. To audiences whose minds are still haunted by images from that tragedy—and to whom guns and gun culture are a little more scary than they were just a week ago—Jack Reacher is a bit of a horror show.
The film, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, begins with a lone gunman preparing for mass murder: lovingly hand-milling his own bullets, driving into a Pittsburgh parking garage, setting up his sniper rifle. And then we get an agonizingly long shot—I recall it as more than a minute long—viewed through his rifle’s scope, as he tracks potential victims along a riverwalk. The audience I was with audibly gasped as the target settled on a man in a suit, a woman holding shopping bags, a nanny walking with a child. Then he fires, fires, and fires again, and soon five victims lie dead on the sidewalk.
A former Army sniper (Joseph Sikora) is quickly arrested, and before he’s beaten into a coma by fellow prisoners, he gives the D.A. (Richard Jenkins) and the investigating officer (David Oyelowo) a single piece of information: “Get Jack Reacher.” But was the sniper a patsy? Enter Tom Cruise, whose Reacher—a discharged military investigator living off the grid— “doesn’t care about the law,” as one character helpfully explains. “He doesn’t care about proof. He only cares about what’s right.” Jack Reacher is an absurdly self-confident, sociopathically laser-focused detective-bot. That is to say, he’s a hero that only Tom Cruise could love.
That Jack Reacher is significantly worse than previous Tom-Cruise-as-Tom-Cruise spectaculars like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (which was great) and Knight and Day (which was not) is not really the fault of Tom Cruise, actor. He’s as steely and cocksure as ever, and he’s added a little weight in his face, which makes him look almost like an adult. Blame Tom Cruise, producer, for this one: He’s the one who developed the material, and worst of all, he’s the one who hired Christopher McQuarrie to write and direct.
McQuarrie’s breakthrough screenplay The Usual Suspects still stands up as the Platonic ideal of a twisty, quippy modern crime story. But Jack Reacher’s script is bizarrely slack and dull, with every point of exposition delivered in triplicate and every twist telegraphed well in advance. And McQuarrie isn’t nearly a good enough director to save the material. Indeed, in an era of technically masterful action directors, from Brad Bird to Christopher Nolan to Pierre Morel to Kathryn Bigelow, it’s somewhat remarkable to watch a movie as ineptly directed as this one. Moments that ought to be suspenseful are duds; the fights and stunts are pedestrian and uninspiring. Thanks to kludgy direction and editing, even the big car chase feels interminable.
Jack Reacher does sport some terrific villains, it must be said. The Australian actor Jai Courtney is charismatic as a brutal killer. Perhaps the best reason to buy a ticket to Jack Reacher is to witness director Werner Herzog’s menacing, mannered performance as the Zek, a former Siberian prisoner turned nefarious, Keyser Soze-esque evil genius. The Zek only gets two scenes, alas, but they’re both awesome, as Herzog glowers in the shadows and at one point demands that a henchman bite off his own fingers. “You gotta be kidding,” the henchman says, but the Zek is never kidding.
But aside from the bad guys—and one intentionally funny fight between Tom Cruise and two dunderheads in a bathroom—pleasures are few and far between here. Once upon a time, this is what all action movies were like. Other than the A-list star, everything about Jack Reacher is reminiscent of the kind of early-’90s crime movie I would have watched on Showtime after school. It would star Steven Seagal, or maybe Brian Bosworth. It would feature a hero who didn’t give a damn about society’s rules—he just cared about justice. (Maybe he’d interrupt his quest for justice to stare soulfully at the occasional babe, as Jack Reacher does to the attractive attorney played by Rosamund Pike.) The villains would be the best part. And it would feature a climactic gunfight of the sort that thrilled teenage me but, this week, just made adult me sick to my stomach. Sadly, I’m sure I’ll regain my appetite for movie violence soon enough, once a well-directed, well-written thriller come along. But this wasn’t it.