A shot from the opening of Jack Reacher dangles between applied genre filmmaking, and aloof undercutting of a tragic moment. It’s the moment that puts the events of the film in motion, and at the time I wondered if this image of a gun’s crosshairs wavering over a crowd of individuals was a sign of potent things to come. In actuality, it was simple butchery with little care over who was put under trigger, which actually sums up the demeanor of the film itself. Originally titled One Shot, either title is fitting to define the film, with the dispensed one not referring to any particular gunshot in the entire film. Jack Reacher preens with all the self-confidence the title character fortifies himself with.
The set-up: A man named James Barr is facing a death row sentence for killing five civilians with no motive, so he calls in help from the mysterious figure Jack Reacher, played significantly by Tom Cruise. As Reacher gets pulled into the case by a desire to simply get to the bottom of it, he finds himself into something he never expected. That being a typical bar fight with some drunk teens, curiously orchestrated by a German criminal mastermind of sorts called The Zec, portrayed with the gravely vocal tones of filmmaker Werner Herzog. Why kill five random civilians? Why send a group of teens after Reacher at a bar? What’s the nefarious plot that threatens to throw our characters into turmoil?
There isn’t one.
Or at least not one which makes much sense given the Zec’s disposition and societal ranking, of which we’re also given little to no information. As a matter of fact, we barely get two fleshed out scenes with Werner Herzog’s character, who’s almost a hilariously farfetched in his supercilious villainy, particularly in a scene where he reveals his own ridiculous physical mutilation. It begs the question that, given his handicap, how is he such a terrifying figure in the criminal underworld? He never does anything onscreen to merit the mastermind status he seems to arrive at automatically. It’s disappointing to see the most promising casting of the film fall flat due to cartoonish character development and a confusing corporate motivation.
Heading into Jack Reacher, though, I was ready to set aside serious things like motivation and complex relationships in favor of the full-throttle action carnival it set out to be. I had adjusted myself to expect something that simple, but writer-director Christopher McQuarrie seems determined to craft a shocking conspiracy out of what turns out to be a simple procedural. We don’t get a fraction of the trills we expect from a Tom Cruise action flick, such as we were bountifully rewarded with in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The first action sequence of the film doesn’t arrive until over an hour into proceedings, and the second doesn’t come until the final showdown out in the middle of nowhere.
While discussing their suspect Barr, Reacher talks of how individuals with experience in a certain field seem smarter than they actually are. That description could well describe director Christopher McQuarrie, whose years writing films like The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, and X-Men has not equipped him to handle an action film as a filmmaker. Both car chase and the ending shoot-out are as sloppily rendered and edited together as the film’s opening credits, tucking names and titles into the far corners of the screen. It jars the audience loose of whatever is happening onscreen, and lacks a propulsive thrust of purpose or goal in these sections.
The character of Jack Reacher is a difficult one to place onscreen, no matter who is playing him. I admire Tom Cruise as a skilled stuntman and charismatic movie star more than most, but Jack Reacher seems to be written as the American definition of the term badass, with bold underlined italics on the word America. Everything from his army cop background, to the brass patriotic music that accompanies him, to the “look at the people” speech which hammers into the audience the film’s unsubstantiated themes. It all reeks of the heavyhanded patriotism that inspires trigger-happy gun-nuts, and it honestly doesn’t encourage audience members to feel at ease in a year of so many senseless massacres.
In all honesty, Reacher is something of a sexist prick, as represented rather impolitely by his conduct in the aforementioned bar scene. We’re never given much reason to like Reacher, though we’re expected to somehow admire him? He’s admittedly not the least developed character of this film. Richard Jenkins phones in his performance after two rather strong turns in The Cabin in the Woods and Killing Them Softly, never giving much dimension to an awkward father-daughter dynamic. Rosamund Pike’s character’s sole motivation is “daddy wasn’t nice to me, and I want to piss him off.” It doesn’t help that she is so easily acquired by the villain towards the end, making her strengths as a character practically non-existent, and inevitably prompting the question of gender bias in this film. Why even question it when we’re intended to care about a slutty cheerleader-type girl who says self-evidently “I am NOT a hooker!”?
Least encouraging of all is David Oyelowo, who has had quite a strong establishing year between Middle of Nowhere, Lincoln, and The Paperboy. To be fair, he’s not served by what his character does throughout the film, which goes without explanation or reconciliation in the film’s finale. Of course there’s a difference between condemnable characters and a condemnable film, but a single moment pushed me over the edge in despising Jack Reacher. As the Jack gets one of the main bad guys under his gun, he opts to waste him in cold blood rather than bring him into custody as a key witness. The ending is a senseless display of needles violence so to leave you dumbfounded at its ineptitude.
Bottom Line: Overconfident and under-endowed, Jack Reacher is a pulseless thrill-walk into senseless violence devoid of an emotional core.