A man drives a white van to the top of a parking deck. He casually parks, deposits a quarter in the parking meter, and pulls out a rifle. He positions himself on a ledge overlooking a nearby park and methodically picks off a handful of people. Then he climbs back into his van and drives away during the ensuing panic. Local police scour the scene, uncover a mountain of forensic evidence, and soon arrest James Barr, a former Army sniper once accused of murdering four military contractors in Iraq. Do the authorities have their guy? Of course not. This is Hollywood after all, and no crime is solved in a Hollywood movie until a renegade with a chiseled jaw has beaten the hell out of at least half a dozen guys and tore ass through a major metropolitan area in an American muscle car. That renegade here is Jack Reacher played by Tom Cruise.
After the patsy is arrested and interrogated by a police detective and the local District Attorney, he demands to speak with Jack Reacher. We find out that Mr. Reacher is a former military cop with an impossibly distinguished career who currently lives off the grid. He doesn’t carry ID, he doesn’t have a phone, he pays for everything in cash, and he takes the bus everywhere. He’s a complete ghost, and as he likes to remind everyone, he can’t be found unless he wants to be found. Of course, five minutes after Barr asks for Reacher, the man shows up in the DA’s office with perfectly coiffed hair and a badass leather jacket.
It’s all a bit a silly, and for the first half hour or so, one wonders if the movie is either a knowing semi-parody of the action genre or an unconsciously bad movie. The answer is that Jack Reacher is a little of both. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie treats his fantastical protagonist with a lot of humor, and Tom Cruise all but winks at the camera while giving a self-aware performance. On the other hand, McQuarrie treats his conspiracy yarn with the utmost seriousness.
The promotional materials for Jack Reacher promised a high-octane, adrenaline fueled action movie, but the first 90 minutes or so are largely action free. Reacher teams up with the accused man’s lawyer (Rosamund Pike), and the two begin collecting evidence. Most of the first two acts consist of Reacher and the attorney talking and poking around for leads. And the evidence slowly but surely begins to point in the direction of a one-eyed, foreign businessman played by Werner Herzog. The resulting web of corporate intrigue and government cover-ups is reminiscent of the bland procedurals of the ‘90s wherein a grizzled veteran and a young idealist would team up to uncover an overly complex conspiracy.
I understand that a lot of people adore the source material behind this movie. I understand that Jack Reacher has appeared in over seventeen best selling novels by author Lee Child. I haven’t read any of those books, but if they consist of the kind of absurd plot twists and convoluted logic that drives this movie, I’m not chomping at the bit to read them. While the dialogue itself is fine, the screenplay for Jack Reacher reeks of hackneyed pot-boiler writing.
However, something awesome happens: Jack Reacher turns into a great action movie during its final hour. As Reacher finally closes in on his target, we’re treated to a series of brutal fist fights and a lengthy car chase through the streets of Pittsburgh. In fact, the film’s signature car chase, in which Reacher pursues a pair of assassins and evades the police in a Chevelle SS, is one of the best chase sequences I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. It’s kinetic and yet easy to follow, it’s over-the-top and yet plausible. Tom Cruise added a little authenticity to the proceedings by doing the stunt driving himself.
Meanwhile, despite a PG-13 rating, the film’s fight sequences are well-choreographed and brutal. McQuarrie steps to the forefront of Hollywood action directors with Jack Reacher by concocting a series of action set pieces that are simultaneously thrilling and coherent. During the brief stretches in which the film abandons its plot, it ranks among one of the best action vehicles of the year. Taken altogether, it’s still a fine movie in its own right.
For better or worse Jack Reacher is a vintage action movie hero trapped in a silly police procedural. Reacher is a character better suited to fishtailing around Pittsburgh in a Chevelle SS and beating large men to death with blunt instruments than to collecting evidence and talking with lawyers. I understand that Tom Cruise wants to turn this into another franchise for himself. In future installments, I hope he gives his protagonist a little more to do.