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My first experience with Jack Reacher was in writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s adaptation of the ninth novel in author Lee Child’s bestselling series of thrillers, and it’s safe to say the relationship won’t progress beyond our initial meeting.
That’s largely because Jack Reacher the character is essentially a conflict of interest between Tom Cruise the movie star and Tom Cruise the producer. Although fans of Reacher made a big deal out of Cruise’s polar-opposite stature – Reacher is described as 6-foot-5 and barrel-chested; Cruise is 5-foot-7 and not — it’s less about physicality than it is about delivery and embodiment of a socially inept ex-Army loner who shops at Goodwill and travels by bus. Reacher undoubtedly looked attractive to Cruise on the page (McQuarrie initially approached him to produce, and Cruise eventually suggested he also star), but the actor is far too slick to accommodate the rough-around-the-edges character.
To make matters worse, Jack Reacher feels like “The Tom Cruise Show,” with scarcely enough room for the rest of the cast: Excellent actors like Richard Jenkins, Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo are barely more than sidekicks.
The story follows an investigation into the assassination of five seeming strangers. After the suspect in custody asks for Jack Reacher to be called in, his lawyer Helen (Pike) and the lead investigator Emerson (Oyelowo) end up enlisting Reacher’s help, much to the dismay of Helen’s father (Jenkins), the district attorney. Pike’s character is purportedly an intelligent and capable lawyer, yet she requires Reacher’s hand-holding throughout the developments of her case. Helen continually questions why she trusts Reacher, but carries on trusting him, transforming her into a glorified damsel in distress. Blessedly, McQuarrie doesn’t push a love story between the two, but there’s supposed to be chemistry, and the duo emanates next to no spark or friction. The only person who displays a gleefully fun, couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude is the fantastic Robert Duvall as Cash, owner of a local shooting range. He demands to hold his own as a formidable presence alongside Cruise, and delivers the most enjoyable performance in the movie.
But the real tragedy of Jack Reacher is the bitterly disappointing realization of a particularly inspired bit of casting: Werner Herzog as the villain, The Zec. Herzog has about 10 minutes of screen time, wherein he bangs out a trademark soliloquy long enough to whet our appetites but is never given the opportunity to see the introduction through to truly menacing, unhinged fruition. He has the look and sound of crazy down pat — he’s just not given any time or space to make it happen. This is the one performance I was most looking forward to, and the only way I can console myself is imagining that 80 percent of Herzog’s scenes hit the cutting-room floor. Otherwise, I’m not sure how he was convinced to sign on.
Where McQuarrie succeeds, however, is in the movie’s technical elements: his pairing with director of photography Caleb Deschanel (introduced beautifully during the film’s opening sequence), the sound design (a masterful mix of silence and soundtrack, which builds an impressive amount of tension) and the thrilling main action sequence, which centers upon a car chase and features Cruise impressively doing his own stunts, along with some really inspired camera angles and choreography.
Despite its technical prowess, I’d be remiss not to mention issues surrounding the film’s plentiful one-liners. Being unfamiliar with Child’s books, I’m not sure how much McQuarrie pulled straight from the page (he’s mentioned that the film is a fairly straightforward adaptation of One Shot), but they fall completely, jarringly flat. I wanted to chalk it up to an, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” issue regarding Cruise, but one set of lines moves the entire sentiment into “beyond reproach” territory. They come during Reacher’s altercation with a girl in a bar, wherein the two devolve into explaining to her male friends the particulars of calling her a “slut” versus “whore” until, when coaxed outside by the men, Reacher tells the girl to stay behind. “I don’t mind the sight of blood,” she states. “Well, it means you’re not pregnant, anyway,” Reacher shoots back.
My jaw dropped. I’m the first to second-guess a knee-jerk moment of offense in a movie; it’s my job to rationally consider things from all sides. But how does one explain this away? Never mind that Reacher’s specialty is saying the wrong thing: It’s not remotely funny, nor is it even particularly logical. I can’t imagine the dig playing well, in any capacity. In fact, a woman behind me in the theater whispered to her boyfriend, “What the hell was that?” He then (get this) apologized to her on behalf of the film.
Moments like that, along with the misuse of a fantastic supporting cast and the wrong choice for the actor portraying the movie’s protagonist, transform a promising premise and beautifully shot visuals and action into a frustrating misfire. Jack Reacher sits about as well as its butt-kicking anti-hero’s social niceties.
Jack Reacher opens nationwide today.