A film review by Craig J. Koban January 6, 2013


2012, PG-13, 131 mins.

Jack: Tom Cruise / Cash: Robert Duvall / Rodin: Richard Jenkins / Helen: Rosamund Pike / The Zec: Werner Herzog

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie / Based on the novels by Lee Child

Let’s clear up a few things about JACK REACHER right from the get-go here.  

Firstly, there’s the controversy of the title character’s casting that has certainly ruffled the feathers of many a fan of the 17 books written by Lee Child featuring him.  To devotees of this literary source material, the casting of the relatively small in stature (5’7”) Tom Cruise as the 6’5" blonde haired Adonis that is Reacher (as Child envisioned him) is a reason to cry a resounding foul.  Yet, for the rest of the filmgoing public not familiar with ONE SHOT (which this film is directly based on) and all of the other Reacher novels, this hullabaloo is much ado about nothing, because Cruise – as a performer – creates such a commanding and invigorating screen presence as Reacher that I never really questioned his casting at all.  Plus, at 50, the eternally youthful looking star still appears like he’s made of granite. 

As for the film around the Reacher character himself?  Well, in many ways, JACK REACHER is not too unlike its main anti-hero: muscular, no-nonsense, hard-hitting, sneakily effective, and viscerally aggressive.  It's action-thriller that combines juicy elements of a murder mystery and a hard boiled action film.  Even better is that it’s all quarterbacked with a slick, assured, and workmanlike old school proficiency and polish by Christopher McQuarrie, who previously won an Oscar for co-writing THE USUAL SUSPECTS and has already worked with Cruise before as a screenwriter on the criminally undervalued VALKYRIE.  McQuarrie – also serving as the   adapting screenwriter of ONE SHOT – not only crafts a relatively simple story of sadistic revenge, but he also tells a complex and well oiled labyrinthine narrative involving a murder and a slew of possible suspects.  JACK REACHER most definitely does not reinvent the wheel as far as genre efforts go, but McQuarrie understands how to make its conventional elements work. 



The film begins with a sensationally realized – if not also a bit shocking and unsettling – opening sequence: A vengeful and cruel sniper with a military precision goes on a rampant killing spree in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, leaving five seemingly unrelated victims dead.  A young and troubled military man, Barr (Joseph Sikora) is accused as the perpetrator, and the evidence against him is damning: the police detective (David Oyelowo) raids his house and finds equipment used for making bullets as well as the sniper rifle.  When the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins) and Barr’s defense attorney - and daughter of the DA - Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) interrogate the accused, all he asks for is Jack Reacher (Cruise), an ex-Army MP officer turned off-the-grid drifter dispensing his own unique brand of white-knuckled justice.  

Before Carr can seriously be questioned, though, he’s viscously attacked by fellow inmates on a routine transfer and is left in a coma.  This leaves Reacher and Helen picking up the pieces of the case and trying to find the best possible defense for the apparently very guilty client.   Initially, Reacher seems to have little sympathy for Barr and believes him to be guilty as charged, but as he uses his keen deductive intellect and Sherlock Holmes-like powers of observation, he begins to notice patterns of illogic and nagging inconsistencies that occurred during the tragic day of the shootings.  Endlessly determined and ruthlessly aggressive, Reacher’s investigation leads him to an enforcer named Charlie (Jai Courtney) and a reprehensible crime boss known as “The Zec” (played with reptilian creepiness by the great film director, Werner Herzog, in perhaps the casting coup of the Christmas film season). 

Yeah, yeah…Cruise is a tiny actor to play a blunt force instrument of hulking physical proportions that is the literary Reacher, but the actor more than physically compensates here with his thespian talents to make Reacher an intriguingly well rounded persona that’s credible not only as a tough brute, but also as a man with razor sharp wits, cunning detective skills, and forceful drive to right past and current wrongs.  Cruise makes his version of Reacher quite believable as a man that can handle himself in a brawl with five other assailants, but he more engagingly evokes a persona of great mental dexterity and confidence that can often out fox everyone around him.  I’m not altogether sure how a different actor with an enormous and intimidating visage would have been able to pull off both facets of this character, but Cruise does so rather admirably. 

The performances built around Cruise are also solid.  The radiant Pike holds her own matching wits with Cruise’s Reacher and the screenplay is flirtatious for how it both plays up to and ultimate skirts any potential romantic liaison between the pair.  Jenkins’ screen time is limited, but much like he did in the recent KILLING THEM SOFTLY he's able to inhabit just about any character he plays with a nonchalant and low-key exactitude.  A spirited and game Robert Duvall shows up late in the film in an enjoyably gnarly cameo as a grizzled gun shop and shooting range owner that comes to assist Reacher and Helen.  And then there is Herzog, who is more than capable of bringing a macabre level of sinister edge to an otherwise underwritten character that the film could have benefited more from.  He’s perhaps the only performer to make the line “I chewed off my fingers before the frostbite could turn to gangrene” come off as legitimately spooky and not unintentionally uproarious.  It’s an absolute trip seeing the publicly peculiar Herzog play an equally nutty villain. 

The main attraction, though, just may be McQuarrie’s solid direction and snappy writing, the latter that contains banter with a bluntness and colorful flavor that these types of pulp-inspired films require.  His direction is noteworthy for how it absconds away from the typical modern day action flourishes of mind-numbing shaky-cam histrionics and seizure inducing editorial overkill.  Instead, he brings bravura – and a most refreshing – level of cleanliness and clarity to individual moments of rock ‘em, sock ‘em mayhem.  Just consider the film’s show stopping set piece, mid-way through, involving Reacher in a commandeered car leading the villains – and some of Pittsburgh’s finest – though an exhilarating chase through the darkened streets of the Steel City.  Along with the always watchful and keen eye of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (who frames Pittsburgh through his lens with a beautifully gritty level of impending menace), McQuarrie is able to drum up more tangible suspense and nail-biting intrigue with his less-is-more level of visual coherence.  

JACK REACHER has a few flaws, like the fact that it takes a while during the first half of its already robust 131 minutes to get to the real epicenter of its central murder investigation, which leaves it feeling a bit top heavy when it comes to exposition.  Plus, the film’s release – which I guess shouldn’t be held directly against it – is horrifically timed with the recent tragic events of the Aurora school shootings (the opening shots of the sniper peering down his scope at a child in one instance may perhaps hit a bit too close to home for some viewers).   Yet, JACK REACHER is a smart, lovingly shot, craftily written, and thanklessly performed action-thriller that respects the essence of Child’s novels and his main character.  And for Cruise himself - as self-possessed and emotionally brawny as ever – he evokes in Reacher a larger-than-life avenging angel despite his obvious lack of physical similarities to the character.   Great actors make you forget such nonsense. 

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