The back story behind Jack Reacher, a former military policeman who now lives as the world’s deadliest hobo, is beyond ridiculous, and Tom Cruise’s celebrity only makes it worse. With Cruise providing the money, there is more movie-star posturing than necessary, including the evitable scene of him without a shirt. Now the Cruise-produced action vehicle is an annual tradition, so the surprising thing about Jack Reacher is how it’s an old-school, blue collar thriller at its heart. In the capable hands of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, the hard-boiled dialogue and tersely economic action sequences overcome Cruise’s massive ego.
A man named Barr drives his truck through Pittsburgh, and settles on the top floor of a parking garage. He takes out a high-powered sniper rifle, points it across a river, and randomly kills five people. The cops easily catch him, and under interrogation, “Get Jack Reacher” is his only request. The District Attorney (Richard Jenkins) and the leading cop (David Oyelowo) are at a loss about finding him. Of course, Reacher (Cruise) shows up at the most plot-convenient moment, and explains to Barr’s lawyer Helen (Rosamund Pike) how they know each other (he investigated Barr when they were both serving in Iraq). Reacher agrees to look into Barr’s crimes again, already assuming he’s guilty. Naturally, Barr is a patsy, the victim of a conspiracy perpetrated by none other than Werner “motherfucking” Herzog, who plays a sinister, deformed ex-con.
This is McQuarrie’s first film since The Year of the Gun, another thriller about angry men who float along either side of the law. It is easy to see why Reacher, the hero of several novels by Lee Child, appeals to McQuarrie. He eschews technology and has highly specific scruples. His method of dealing with criminals involves improvisation, shrewd observation, sudden violence, and a dose of dark humor. Cruise has little problem with the role – Reacher is just like Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, except meaner – although the PG-13 rating stops him and McQuarrie from having nasty fun with the franchise. Still, McQuarrie’s workmanlike direction is so good it’s almost invisible: he sets up action so we understand the space, and has the confidence to let them play out without music or dialogue. The car chase in particular is one of the year’s best, using Pittsburgh’s unusual geography as a starting point for crashes and obstacles. The plot follows the structure of most airport bookstore thrillers, as it must, yet McQuarrie finds a way to explore the themes and shots he fetishizes. It’s auteur filmmaking at its most glossy.
Jack Reacher can be fiendishly entertaining, yet there is an unpleasant sub-plot that neither McQuarrie nor Cruise could have foreseen. Some scenes are an eerie reminder of last week’s Newtown shooting: Pike’s character, for example, visits the families of the victims while they’re still grieving. The scenes still work as drama – Pike is terrific actress who can seemingly handle anything required of her – but there is a sour, unpleasant feeling when a movie mirrors a national tragedy. That might be enough to hurt its box office potential, which is fine since it already feels like a low-ambition thriller that’s perfectly-suited to a night at home with friends and a six-pack. For all it does well, the only reason to run and see Jack Reacher is Werner Herzog. All of his dialogue comes with a tinge of weathered sadness, and it’s weirdly hilarious to seem him act alongside Cruise. It’s as if Herzog wrote all of his own lines, and if that’s the case, McQuarrie’s smartest move was to not question Germany’s greatest, gravest weirdo.