“Do you think I’m a hero? I am not a hero. And if you’re smart, that scares you.”
Even without the tragic headlines still fresh in our minds, the opening of Jack Reacher is a tense and disturbing sequence as a sniper primes himself across from PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. We peer through the crosshairs of his rifle scope as the shooter picks off five targets, including a woman clutching a child while fleeing for safety. The investigation is swift and a retired Army sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora) is apprehended. During his interrogation by D.A. Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins) and Det. Emerson (David Oyelowo), Barr remains silent and simply writes on a legal pad, “Get Jack Reacher.”
Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a hard man to find. A decorated soldier and a former military investigator, Reacher has dropped off the grid completely. He drifts across the country with only the clothes on his back and a portable toothbrush in his pocket. He’s so old-school that he still uses pay phones. You don’t find Jack Reacher, Jack Reacher finds you. Reacher is familiar with Barr from a previous case and doesn’t arrive as a savior crusading for his innocence, but to ensure he is properly punished for his crime. Despite the pleas of Barr’s defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who also happens to be the district attorney’s daughter, Reacher is ready to take the first bus out of town.
However, something bothers Reacher about the murders and he sticks around. As he digs deeper, Reacher unravels a dark conspiracy involving a clandestine cartel headed up by a man known only as The Zec (Werner Herzog). The Zec is a chilling puppet master who chewed off his own frostbitten fingers while imprisoned in a Siberian gulag.
There was immediate controversy when Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher, the hero from a series of novels by Lee Child. In the books, Reacher is described as a craggily 6’5 juggernaut with shortly cropped blond hair. He’s John Rambo, Sherlock Holmes, and the entire A-Team rolled into one. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the 5’7 Cruise stepped into his large shoes. There are moments where Tom Cruise’s…well, Tom Cruise-ness works for and against his portrayal of a no-nonsense action hero.
It’s rare to find someone physically imposing with the acting chops to kick start a blockbuster franchise. The filmmakers could have gone for someone like Dolph Lundgren or The Rock, both of whom likely would have given a one note performance. Liam Neeson might have done in a pinch or Ray Stevenson. A younger Clint Eastwood could have also been a good choice, especially since the sniper angle is reminiscent of Dirty Harry. In any event, Cruise won the role and had the clout to get it made. At 50 years old, Cruise doesn’t look like he’s aged in the past two decades. Not an easy task to picture the exceedingly handsome star as a world weary combat veteran who shops at Goodwill. It doesn’t help that Cruise’s leading lady, Rosamund Pike, is taller than he is.
What Cruise does possess is a grim determination and a forceful screen presence. He may not be playing Jack Reacher any differently than Ethan Hunt or John Anderton, but he’s convincing when delivering tough guy lines, such as when he threatens to beat someone to death and drink their blood from a boot. Cruise’s Reacher isn’t the guy you don’t want to mess with, he’s the guy you mess with and realize what a mistake that was. Cruise’s small stature leads to one of the movie’s cleverest sequences in which Reacher evades the police by simply stepping into a crowd waiting at a bus stop.
Jack Reacher was adapted for the screen by Christopher McQuarrie, best known for writing The Usual Suspects. This is his second directorial effort with the first being 2000’s Way of the Gun. Handsomely photographed by Caleb Deschanel, Jack Reacher is an old-fashioned action film with McQuarrie eschewing the rapid-fire editing employed by many directors. The fight scenes are captured with a steady camera and a series of extended shots with Cruise performing the majority of his own stunts. There’s a climatic confrontation in a quarry as well as a prolonged car chase, a throwback to Bullitt with Cruise ripping through the streets of Pittsburgh in a ’70 Chevelle.
The script takes a by-the-numbers approach to the genre and though Cruise is miscast, he handles the material well. What really boosts the film is the inspired casting of German auteur Werner Herzog as the Zec. Despite being on screen for maybe ten minutes, Herzog is one of the most memorable movie villains in recent memory. He is downright eerie as he drones on in that unmistakable drawl of his. The central plot involves a needlessly complex obfuscation, but Herzog is so creepy you’re quick to believe his mind works on such byzantine levels. Robert Duvall is also terrific when he pops up in the third act playing a crusty coot as only Robert Duvall can.
Jack Reacher is a rather generic start to a potential franchise for Tom Cruise and Paramount. Still, the movie stands as a solid bit of popcorn entertainment with several well done action sequences. Herzog and Duvall are certainly worth the price of admission.