It’s almost difficult to remember what a hard-boiled, stripped-down, old-fashioned action-thriller looks like. We’ve become so reliant on CG for our action and jump-scares for our thrills that we forget solid action-thrillers don’t need to rely on gigantic budgets or creepy mysteries to make an impact. Jack Reacher is that confident action thriller we’ve been missing. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has created a film that almost feels like a throwback in its confident plotting and attitude. Furthermore, Tom Cruise once again reminds us that we can never underestimate his acting talent, and while he may not share the physicality of the character in the book, the attitude remains.
Retired military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora) stands accused of murdering five innocent people in broad daylight. The crime scene easily leads to his arrest, but during his interrogation, he writes down the statement, “Get Jack Reacher”. Reacher (Cruise) is a former military investigator-turned-drifter who describes his wanderlust as an addiction. Barr’s request piques Reacher’s curiosity since he knows Barr committed cold-blooded murders during the war, but escaped on a technicality. With the help of Barr’s lawyer Helen (Rosamund Pike), Reacher’s hunt for answers puts him in the crosshairs of dangerous assassin Charlie (Jai Courtney) and his boss, the Zec (Werner Herzog).
Jack Reacher is a welcome surprise in many ways. McQuarrie doesn’t make any overt attempts to echo previous films in the genre or highlight how his movie is refreshingly old-fashioned. Instead, he ties in the direction to the personality of his protagonist. Reacher is based on the book One Shot by Lee Child, and Child’s series describes the character as 6’5″ and able to bear-hug a man to death. Obviously, Tom Cruise doesn’t have that physique, so it’s up to McQuarrie and his star to convey that muscle without showing muscles. Instead, the filmmaker and star play to the toughness of Reacher’s personality.
In the book, Reacher is a smart, no-nonsense soldier with a sharp sense of humor. He’s not constantly cracking jokes, but he doesn’t have a stick up his ass. McQuarrie follows suit with a movie that ditches flourishes and flashy effects for straightforward fisticuffs and a terrific car chase that’s more of a clever cat-and-mouse rather than a race. It’s a remarkably surefooted accomplishment for McQuarrie, who hasn’t directed a movie since 2000’s The Way of the Gun. Whereas Gun felt like it was trying too hard to be hip and stylish, Reacher knows exactly what it wants to be and does it with conviction.
The other revelation is Cruise, although I’m not sure how he keeps surprising me. Cruise has had a remarkably versatile career even though his main action persona is the guy who’s smarter than everyone in the room but one who’s rarely imposing. Cruise usually plays frustrated or clandestine characters, but his filmography consistently shows the chances he takes and how he’s succeeded. We forget his powerful performances in Magnolia and Collateral because they’re not lead roles, but they’re among his best. Fans of the book understandably underestimated Cruise, but they should be relieved that the spirit of the character is alive and well in Jack Reacher. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t find Cruise imposing enough to play a badass, but the film wisely sets Reacher up as someone who has no patience for bullshit. Having laid out the character’s foundation, the movie is able to convince us that Cruise is capable of doling out some serious punishment.
Lee Child wrote an effective novel, and McQuarrie has stripped it down to its essential elements. Even running at over two hours, Jack Reacher feels remarkably lean, and while it has no grand ambitions, it successfully commits to its task. If anything, the film could be tolerably longer if it gave a little more time to Herzog, who add just the right dash of camp to a movie that pulls back on levity as Reacher delves further into his investigation. Minor qualms aside, Jack Reacher is a welcome reminder that bells and whistles may sound nice, but a punch to the gut and the roar of an engine can be just as enjoyable.