There was a certain amount of trepidation when it was announced that Tom Cruise was cast in the title role of Jack Reacher (2012), an adaptation of the popular series of crime novels by Lee Child. Fans were upset that the movie star did not resemble the character in the least despite getting the author’s blessing. Cruise used his clout to get Christopher McQuarrie out of director’s jail after the critical and commercial failure of his directorial debut with The Way of the Gun (2000) and entrusted him to adapt Child’s 2005 novel One Shot. The end result is a smartly-written, well-acted thriller with lean, visceral action sequences.
A sniper (Jai Courtney) kills five random people outside of a stadium in Pittsburgh. All of the evidence points to disgraced ex-soldier James Barr (Joseph Sikora) and he’s arrested by the police. During questioning he refuses to say anything, only writing on a piece of paper the words, “Get me Jack Reacher.” Before this man can be summoned, Barr is badly beaten into a coma while in custody. Guilty or not, it’s a clear violation of his rights and a lawyer by the name of Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) decides to defend him.
Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), a former military police officer now troubleshooting drifter, surfaces and explains to Helen his connection to Barr. She convinces him to do a little digging into the case and it quickly becomes obvious that all the evidence points a little too conveniently towards Barr. Who set him up and why? The deeper Helen and Reacher dig the more danger they find themselves in with an enigmatic man known as the Zec (Werner Herzog) pulling the strings. Initially, Helen tries to convince Reacher to help her with the case while later on the tables are turned as it is he who has to convince her to continue with their investigation.
Tom Cruise is excellent as the mysterious Reacher, playing him with an engaging mix of no-nonsense attitude with occasional flourishes of humor. Reacher is the kind of person that carries himself with confidence that comes from being very good at what he does. On occasions, McQuarrie shows Reacher thinking the case through or quietly sifting through evidence or walking the crime scene. His economy of words mirrors his efficiency as a man of action, knowing the exact moves to put down five attackers without killing them. Cruise may not look like Reacher, as described in Child’s book, but he conveys an unbeatable combination of intelligence and physical prowess.
A pre-Gone Girl (2014) Rosamund Pike is good as a determined attorney that is initially exasperated at Reacher’s knack for getting in trouble, but as their investigation progresses realizes that there is more to this case than meets the eye. Her performance hints at a woman with something to prove – first and foremost to her father (Richard Jenkins), the city’s upstanding District Attorney, and then to her co-workers who think she’s crazy for following a case she can’t possibly win. Helen is a good foil for Reacher, always a step behind him – the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Helen has a strong sense of justice – so much so that she takes on a case that her firm doesn’t want and her father tries to dissuade her from pursuing. Unfortunately, in the last third of the film she is reduced to a damsel in distress, a hostage that must be rescued by Reacher.
As he demonstrated with The Way of the Gun, McQuarrie knows how to orchestrate action sequences for maximum effect. He continues to do so with Jack Reacher as evident in the cleanly choreographed action where you know where everyone is and what is going on at all times. McQuarrie has crafted a no frills, no bullshit thriller devoid of narrative fat – it’s an old school crime film as if the filmmaker took an Action Movie 101 course taught by Don Siegel with a minor in car chases taught by John Frankenheimer. Case in point: the wonderfully executed car chase as Reacher pursues the bad guys and is in turn chased by the cops. Even more impressive is that Cruise did all of his own driving! Compared to most contemporary action movies, the editing in Jack Reacher is practically sedate in tempo—or, rather methodical, much like the film’s protagonist. McQuarrie understands that you only need to make an edit when necessary and eschews frenetic hand-held camerawork that is still popular for a much calmer approach that is just as effective if not more so.
I like how McQuarrie subverts some of the Hollywood thriller clichés. Helen and Reacher never become romantically involved and, at one point, she even mistakenly assumes he’s going to kiss her. The first six to seven minutes of the film are dialogue free as the filmmaker utilizes a strong sense of visual storytelling, forcing us to pay attention to what is happening. He also opts to have no to very little music used during the action sequences, which gives them a more visceral impact. Werner Herzog’s bad guy is unrepentant and a survivor with his experiences in the Soviet Gulag shaping his entire worldview. He plays the Zec with an icy quality that is quite unsettling. There’s a corrupt cop, but his reasons for being in league with the bad guys remains deliciously ambiguous and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Jack Reacher is stylish and grown-up, assuming that its audience is smart enough to follow Reacher’s investigation in a way that adheres to the usual investigative beats but presented in a slightly unusual way. McQuarrie has written a solid screenplay with snappy, give-and-take dialogue that comes to life when Reacher first meets Helen, her father and the police detective (David Oyelowo) in charge of the investigation. The exchange between them is funny and delivered with crackerjack timing by the actors. There is a wonderful economy of words, like when Reacher recounts Barr’s stint in Iraq. McQuarrie only shows us a glimpse of it and lets Reacher fill in the rest, giving us just enough information to establish Barr’s past and their connection.
In its seemingly random nature, the opening sniper attack echoes the real-life Beltway sniper attacks that took place over three weeks in October 2002 in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. and its patsy shooter with a checkered past anticipates American Sniper (2014) by two years. Both films feature veterans who’ve done questionable things and returned home psychologically scarred, having trouble adjusting to regular life. McQuarrie includes nice details, like when Helen visits with the father of one of the sniper victims and this puts a human face on what were initially anonymous targets. It shows that this rampage has consequences, leaving behind families devastated by the death of their loved ones.
Jack Reacher’s coda is surprisingly moving as McQuarrie quietly makes a poignant statement about the effect of the war in the Middle East has on an individual without being preachy about it. People come back after making life and death decisions on a daily basis and are expected to adjust to “normal” life. Barr is just a guy trying to put his life back together and becomes an unwitting pawn in a scheme that involves making money through elaborate scams. While Reacher busted him for crimes he committed during the war, he fights to clear the man’s name back in the world. Some soldiers return home from war and are forced to the margins of society while others, like Reacher, do so by choice. One must give Cruise credit for using his clout within the industry to get a mid-level budgeted film for grown-ups made at a Hollywood studio – something that is virtually unheard of these days. One hopes that he can do so again for a sequel that this intriguing character deserves.