REVIEW: “Jake Reacher: Never Go Back”

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Don’t let its deceptive title fool you. You most certainly can go back. Just look at Tom Cruise, the 54 year-old ageless wonder. 2012 was the first time Cruise took on the role of ‘tough as nails’ ex-military cop Jack Reacher. Now four years later he ‘goes back’ for a second round of high energy, low monotone Reacher-style action.

Edward Zwick directs the film and has some history with Cruise. The two previously worked together on the 2003 epic “The Last Samurai”. Needless to say this is a much different picture. It follows the basic blueprint of the first movie – a no-nonsense, tough guy protagonist, some big action, and a military mystery through-line. Think of it as a big screen NCIS with a larger budget and Tom Cruise running the show.

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Cruise’s Reacher is still a drifter who does his own thing but occasionally lends a hand to the military police he left behind. In doing so he develops an over-the-phone friendship with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) who now runs his old unit. Upon arriving in Washington DC to meet her for the first time, Reacher discovers she has been relieved of her duties and arrested for espionage.

Sensing an obvious set up, Reacher busts out Susan and the two fugitives set out to find out who wants her dead and why. Along the way Reacher learns he may be the father of a teenaged daughter (played by Danika Yarosh), a convenient little story thread that adds some manufactured vulnerability to our unstoppable hero.

That sarcasm you may sense in my tone can be attributed to the fact that I’m still struggling with how I feel about the film. Broadly speaking I do like it and feel many are being overly critical. It is competently made by Zwick and it delivers exactly what audiences will expect. Cruise is never the problem with his movies and he does good here as well. Smulders is even better as a tough, hard-nosed woman who is a far cry from the normal action movie damsel in distress. She is a genuine action heroine and the one true refreshing element.

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But at the same time, it’s hard to see this as anything more than a ‘one-and-done’ viewing. Despite the efforts of Cruise and Smulders, things never rise above predictable and/or formulaic. There is nothing about the story that will catch you by surprise. And aside from more action and a new subtitle, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” doesn’t offer much new for the series as a whole.

Writer Lee Child has written 21 books as part of his Jack Reacher series. “Never Go Back” is based on his 18th novel so there is still plenty of material should they decide to make a third movie. I would go see another Reacher film since I have found entertainment in both of the these installments. But unless they are willing to shake up the formula, Jack Reacher 3 will be more of the same – entertaining enough at first but nothing that will stick with you past that initial viewing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

“Jack Reacher” – 3 STARS

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You wouldn’t know it by looking at his string of recent films, but Tom cruise is still a bona-fide movie star. His newest effort is “Jack Reacher”, a crime thriller that’s based on the popular series of novels by Lee Child. Released in the shadow of the box office juggernaut “The Hobbit”, “Jack Reacher” has received little fanfare. That’s a shame because compared to much of the stuff that passed for movies this year, this is a good, solid film and a perfect vehicle for Tom Cruise. It’s a sleek and snappy movie that features a bit of everything even though it doesn’t go far enough to really state its own identity. It’s also sure to leave you scratching your head at some of the things you’re seeing. Nevertheless, I had fun with this picture.

On the surface “Jack Reacher” resembles something pulled right out of the late 1980s. Reacher is a hard-as-nails, ex-military type turned drifter and ghost. He has the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes and the butt kicking ability of Jason Bourne. I’ve never read any of the books so I’m uncertain of who Jack Reacher is beyond that. The movie never clearly says. Instead it plays up the character shrouded in mystery. Is he a vigilante? Is he a hired gun? Is he an off the grid cop? Well, maybe a little bit of “yes” to all. Cruise does a nice job handling the character. One of the biggest concerns about this movie with some folks was his height. Fans of the books quickly noted that Cruise’s build doesn’t match with the picture that Child creates in the series. I can’t speak to that, but I had no problems with what Cruise was doing on screen.

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“Jack Reacher” isn’t a title-to-credit, nonstop, action movie. That may be one reason why Cruise worked out so well. Most of the film centers around the investigation of a brutal mass sniper shooting of five random people at a Pittsburgh promenade during broad daylight. While not graphic, the opening sequence depicting the shooting was incredibly intense and even more sobering in light of current events. It’s brilliantly shot and sets the table well. Reacher pops up and enters the investigation due to a past connection with the chief suspect. He works alongside an idealistic defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) who agrees to take the case against the better judgment of her district attorney father (Richard Jenkins). As with any decent movie mystery there are several twists and turns that keep this from being the clear-cut, open and shut case that it first appears to be.

The story moves at a snappy pace and never bogs down even though it may not have needed all of its 2 hour plus running time. As mentioned above, it never develops its own real identity. At one point it feels like a crime drama with elements taken from the 1940s. But at other times it seems to want to be an action picture, a revenge movie, or even a comedy. Luckily none of these changes in tone and direction jars the movie too far off course. It kept me interested and involved even when things begin to get a little preposterous.

Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise on “Valkyrie”, wrote the screenplay and directed the film. He’s a very capable writer as evidenced by his work on “The Usual Suspects”. But even though I was never bored with his script or his pacing, there were a few things that seemed surprisingly off, specifically the characters played by the great filmmaker Werner Herzog and Robert DuVall. Herzog plays a shadowy Russian mobster who is more of a cartoon character than a real menace. Both he and his intentions and motivations feel terribly underwritten. DuVall is a lot of fun when we first see him as a blustery gun range owner. But he turns into Reacher’s gun-toting sidekick during the big bullet-ridden action finale, a move that felt about as conventional as you’ll find.

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There are also several instances of cheesy dialogue that Cruise actually handles well. Whether some of them were intentionally or unintentionally cheesy I can’t answer, but it reminded me of many of the movies I grew up watching. These few scenes left one critic saying that “Jack Reacher” belongs in a bygone era of movies. I disagree. For me, the cheese worked. I also have to praise the slick and stylish action sequences. Caleb Deschanel’s camera work is often times stunning. In fact, he stages and shoots one of the best car chase sequences I have seen in a long, long time. The movie is worth seeing just for this amazing chase.

In the end, “Jack Reacher” is a tough movie to review. It’s an engaging and entertaining movie but a slightly flawed one. It’s also a film destined to be lost in the crowd of December movies and awards season entries. I liked this picture and I liked Cruise’s performance. But the movie doesn’t end up being the one it starts as. The intense opening sequence sets the movie up as a serious and gritty crime thriller. It evolves into sheer Hollywood escapism. That certainly doesn’t kill the movie, but I would be interested to see how the other “Jack Reacher” would have played out. Still, I have to commend the movie for engaging me and giving me a good time at the theater. I would have no problem seeing this again, but I still can’t help but feel that it wasted some of its potential.