Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay), Lee Child (novel, “One Shot”)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall, Jai Courtney, Michael Raymond-Jones, Alexia Fast, Joseph Sikora
It’s hard to imagine a more poorly timed film than JACK REACHER, Christopher McQuarrie’s (THE WOLVERINE, VALKYRIE, THE WAY OF THE GUN, THE USUAL SUSPECTS) adaptation of Lee Child’s 2005 bestselling crime-thriller, “One Shot,” the ninth book in the still ongoing Jack Reacher series. JACK REACHER centers on a mass killing, the murder of five people by a sniper in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the eponymous hero-protagonist’s investigation of the seemingly unmotivated murders. Sensitive-minded moviegoers will find McQuarrie’s direction of the opening sequence troubling, in large part due to the mass shooting in Newton, Connecticut. It’s made all the worse by McQuarrie’s tension-filled, suspenseful direction and the recognition, however temporary and fleeting, that makes whatever pleasure comes our way when the scales of justice (or more accurately, retribution) are re-weighed on the side of good, are cheap, unearned, and possibly disrespectful.
How much of that is true, however, is for another time and perhaps another article. For now, we have to set aside those concerns and attempt to review JACK REACHER on its strengths and weaknesses outside of any cultural or political context. Even there, however, JACK REACHER fails and fails badly. If JACK REACHER is any indication of Child’s novel, it’s nothing more (and often far less) than a pulpy, generic crime-thriller, filled with unsurprising “surprises” and predictably plot turns that anyone who’s visited a movie theater in the last ten or fifteen years (or on television, of course), can figure out with minimal mental effort. That might be what Child’s readers have come to expect from his work, but even a modestly budgeted film like JACK REACHER requires a semi-original plot to grab and hold the audience.
To take just one example, it takes the better part of an hour for the central character and the obligatory romantic interest, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), an attorney defending an ex-Army sniper Reacher once investigated, to connect the ten-foot-tall dots and realize the shooting wasn’t random at all, but a methodically executed plan to hide one murder in particular, for reasons that are blindingly obvious to everyone except Reacher and Rodin. To Reacher’s credit, his natural skepticism leads him to ask the questions a Pittsburgh detective, Emerson (David Oyelowo), and the district attorney (Richard Jenkins), refuse to pose, let alone answer. Even a fictional (or otherwise) conviction-obsessed detective or DA, however, would ask the same, basic questions Reacher asks seconds after he cursorily examines crime-scene evidence, if only to strengthen their case against the accused shooter, James Mark Barr (Joseph Sikora), an ex-Army sniper.
The plot slips into neutral whenever Reacher and Helen trade exposition, picking up only when Reacher, an ex-military investigator and war veteran, finds his way into one of several fist fights and later on, the obligatory firefight before Reacher and the villain’s chief henchman, Charlie (Jai Courtney), throw down their military-grade firearms for brutal, close up, personal combat, in the driving rain of a now muddy quarry no less. Not one to let a crime-thriller cliché go unused, McQuarrie turns the central villain, The Zec (Werner Herzog), an oddly German-accented, Russian gangster, not only one-eyed, but practically fingerless too, the better presumably to make him into a monster. Instead, he’s one step above a joke. Given his physical appearance and mannerisms, the Zec could have easily stepped out of a Bond film, a 1960s-era Bond that is. To be fair, McQuarrie probably followed Child’s description of the villain, but what works on paper doesn’t necessarily work on (or in) film.
JACK REACHER is all the more disappointing given Cruise’s involvement not just as the lead actor, but as producer as well. Despite multiple public missteps, Cruise has been one of the most watchable, bankable movie stars for more than thirty years. Given the commercial and critical success of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 4 last year and not one, but two big-budget science-fiction actioners, OBLIVION and ALL YOU NEED IS KILL, on the way in the next two years, JACK REACHER probably isn’t an indication of a fading or faltering career, at least not yet, but Cruise needs to pick future projects with more care. Otherwise, moviegoers will be stuck with the unpleasant experience of seeing a once A-list actor turn into a B-, C- or even D-level actor right before their eyes.