Apocryphal story: an actor is rejected for a role because he’s short. ‘But I can act tall!’ comes the response. As hard as it is to believe, Tom Cruise acts tall in Jack Reacher.
Even after the negativity surrounding Tom Cruise’s being cast as Jack Reacher, I hadn’t felt the need to read one of Lee child’s Reacher novels, but after the first, appallingly generic trailer for the movie, I picked up The Affair – which tells the story of how veteran army MP Jack Reacher became the off-the-grid wandering hero he came to be.
In the book, Reacher is described as being six-foot-five and two hundred and fifty pounds of incredibly tough, lethal behemoth – with intelligence to match his size and a photographic memory and a lethal intensity. Even after having seen the trailer, I saw a slightly younger, six-five version of Stephen Lang (Avatar, Terra Nova) as Reacher.
Following the release of the infinitely better second trailer, I picked up One Shot – the novel on which Jack Reacher is based – and which has Cruise on the cover. Even then, when I read it, I still saw Lang as Reacher. So I wasn’t really ready to accept Cruise in the role when I walked into the theater.
While Jack Reacher is a movie that has problems, Cruise, surprisingly, not one of them.
The movie opens with a lengthy taut sequence in which a sniper kills four seemingly random people with five shots (it’s five with six shots in the book) and is them tracked down and arrested. This is where the first major departure from the book occurs: we see who the shooter is right of the bat. In the book, we don’t learn that James Barr (Joseph Sikora) is innocent until much, much later.
When Barr is taken to interrogation, he refuses to say a word, scrawling ‘Find Jack Reacher’ on a legal pad. Reacher arrives soon after because he’s seen a news story on a hotel room TV and has made Barr a promise as a result of an incident in their past. He’s not there to help Barr; he’s there to bury him.
Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, The Wolverine) has taken a five hundred page novel and condensed it to a slightly more than two hour movie by pruning whole characters and arcs (Barr’s sister, the pivotal character who sets his defense in motion, is gone; other characters appear briefly and are gone) while maintaining the awkward father/daughter dynamic of the city’s district attorney, Rodin (Richard Jenkins) and Barr’s attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike) and the case’s lead detective, Emerson (David Oyelowo).
The case against Barr is ironclad. There’s a lot of evidence – perhaps too much? It’s only through Helen’s determination to get her client a fair trial that Reacher gets to the point that he recognizes what’s wrong with this picture and sets out to figures things out – but he’s still ready to move in when a second murder affronts his sense of what’s right.
The bad guys in this scenario are very lightly sketched in, though Werner Herzog, whose reputation for the crazy precedes him, gives the criminal mastermind shadings of insanity that make him truly chilling. His backstory, involving the origin of his name, The Zec, gives him reason to be less than sane – and gives Reacher a chance to show off his linguisitic knowledge (if not skill…).
There are really only three action set pieces in Jack Reacher, so it’s much more a thriller than an action movie. In the book, Reacher’s size makes his first burst of action – a beatdown of an unwitting group of hired thugs – much less of a surprise, but even knowing how it’s going to go doesn’t really prepare an audience for Reacher’s skills. Cruise, of course, is famous for doing his own stunts and the fight does go down as it did in the book – down to Reacher explaining to the five punks exactly how things will go down before they even start. It’s pretty bravura stuff.
The second set piece is a car chase that will undoubtedly be compared to the granddaddy of all chase sequences from 1968’s Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. The twist here is that Reacher is chasing a car that has been following him – while the police are chasing him! Again, a bravura exhibition.
The final set piece is the big shootout that closes out the film. It is completely changed from the book – location, timing, the combination of characters involved. Like the book, though, Reacher doesn’t go it alone – he’s given help by Cash (Robert Duvall), a retired Marine who runs a gun range (a ‘match’ range) whom Reacher encounters during his investigation.
Where the film doesn’t quite work, at times, is in the details. The best example comes at the end of the car chase, when Reacher fakes out the police by leaving his car and melting into a crowd at a bus top. One of the men at the stop hands him his baseball cap, which Reacher dons as the people surround him.
There is no way on earth that these people have any reason help a fugitive. Their action is not set up, nor do any of them figure in any other aspect of the story. They help because the story requires them to do so.
Another big problem is that none of the other characters gets much in the way of an opportunity to show what their made of and, as a result, Jenkins, Oleyowo and Pike aren’t given much to play with. Jenkins gives DA Rodin both a warmth and a hardness that certainly weren’t on the page, we never really get to see why Oleyowo’s Emerson is considered a brilliant detective (all his work in the book is condensed into an exceedingly brief montage at the beginning of the movie).
Pike is called on the show determination and wide-eyed astonishment – not nearly enough to work with considering her greater screen time than any other supporting character.
Despite a few moments where we wonder ‘why would they do that?’ Jack Reacher is a better than average thriller that exhibits some intelligence most of the way.
Cruise takes a few minutes to accept in the role – if you’ve read any of the books – but he pulls it off because he has the same kind of focus and intensity that Reacher has. He also has the intelligence and confidence – and yes, he acts tall.
As a director, McQuarrie keeps things moving and makes the movie’s central puzzle intriguing enough that even with only one reasonably developed character (that would be Reacher, of course), Jack Reacher is a diverting movie.
Final Grade: B
Photos by Karen Ballard/Courtesy Paramount Pictures