Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is one of the better action films of the last five years. It adapts a character that Tom Cruise is completely unsuited for physically (in the books, Reacher is built more like Dwayne Johnson) and taps into a stone-cold resolve many of us didn’t think Cruise was capable of. We knew he could be an action star because of the Mission: Impossible movies, but it’s one thing to be a gadget-wielding super-spy, and it’s another to be a cold, steely-eyed drifter who’s tough as nails. McQuarrie adapted Lee Child’s One Shot into a terrific action vehicle for Cruise that ran on bravado and lo-fi thrills. It was a tonic for the modern, CGI-packed blockbuster.
Four years later and Jack Reacher has returned with Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, but new director Edward Zwick doesn’t understand what makes Reacher tick. He saddles the character with a surrogate family when one isn’t called for, and the attempt to soften Reacher takes away the character’s edginess and unpredictability. The script drowns in a convoluted plot, there are unnecessary flourishes like “Reacher-vision”, and while Cruise still has a handle on the character, his adventure this time around is far less interesting despite a strong supporting performance from Cobie Smulders.
The story picks up with Reacher (Cruise) headed to Washington, D.C. to meet up with Major Susan Turner (Smulders), an officer who commands his old unit and a trusted friend despite the two never having met in person before. However, when Reacher comes to Turner’s office, he discovers that she’s been arrested for espionage. To make matters worse, Reacher’s also being hit with a paternity suit that claims he’s the father of 15-year-old foster kid, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh). Realizing that both Turner and Samantha are in danger from shadowy forces, Reacher springs to the rescue and takes them both along as they try to figure out who framed Turner and who’s out to kill them.
If this were the fourth or fifth Jack Reacher film, I could maybe understand giving the character a surrogate family to help show another side of him. You shake up the formula because the formula has started to go a little stale. But what McQuarrie was offering in 2012’s Jack Reacher was still working fine. The supporting characters in that movie are important, but they don’t hang off of Reacher. He’s largely a solitary character, and he does two things: 1) kick butt; 2) solve mysteries. He still does those things in Never Go Back, but he’s saddled with relationships that don’t make Reacher, the guy we showed up to see, any better.
Also, a word of advice to any screenwriter or producer or director who’s thinking, “You know what this action movie is missing? A smart-ass teenager.”: Don’t. Just don’t. There are moments where Samantha’s not completely insufferable, but those moments are few and far between. No one was asking the question, “What if Jack Reacher was a father figure?” It’s not an essential part of his character. And yet Samantha is shoehorned into scenes to force development that never really arrives. She’s also, inevitably, endangered by the bad guys at the climax of the film.
Perhaps if the movie had just been Reacher and Turner it could have been on to something, but that’s mainly on the strength of Smulders’ performance. Watching Never Go Back, I know it will be maddening in the years to come when I see Smulders in movies and those movies aren’t action films where she’s the hero. I have no doubt she could anchor an action franchise on par with Reacher or John Wick if she was given the opportunity.
The larger problem is that Reacher and Turner are trapped in a lazy thriller that doesn’t have the fun twists and turns of the first movie. The villains are absolutely lousy (I know that Werner Herzog is a tough act to follow, but the script doesn’t even try to give Robert Knepper’s baddie anything substantive beyond “he’s greedy”), and their nefarious scheme is largely uninteresting. What’s more, Zwick doesn’t even seem to be particularly interested in the larger case at hand. He’s more occupied in painting Reacher as a makeshift family man, and that’s not really why we care about Jack Reacher.
Never Go Back was the opportunity to take a character who had somewhat struggled in his first outing (the first movie did fine at the box office, but not the kind of heavyweight numbers that studios demand) and give him another shot at winning over audiences. Sadly, despite Cruise and Smulders’ strong performances, this is probably the end of the line for the Jack Reacher franchise. It’s a shame because given the right screenwriter and director, I’d happily come back.