Film review: Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise, right, as Reacher and Jai Courtney as Charlie. Picture: AP
Tom Cruise, right, as Reacher and Jai Courtney as Charlie. Picture: AP
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TOM Cruise isn’t the most obvious choice to play the hero of American-based British thriller writer Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. In the books, the ludicrously named Reacher is 6ft5in and built like an oak tree; it’s his defining trait, the thing that makes this mysterious ex-military-cop-turned-drifter both stand out in a room and intimidate the bad guys.

Jack Reacher (12A)

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog

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Cruise, on the other hand, is around 5ft7in and looks like he has a good personal trainer. He’s in shape, but he’s hardly the rangy, rough-and-ready, tough guy type.

On paper, then, having Cruise play Reacher in a film version of Child’s 2005 novel One Shot might seem like another instance of Hollywood vanity miscasting. But as hardly needs to be pointed out, we’re not dealing with paper here, we’re dealing with movies, and even though Cruise may be short-in-stature in real life, he’s still the biggest film star on the planet and in this instance that’s what counts.

In fact, the smartest thing the film’s writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has done, in lieu of having an actor who matches the physical description, is capitalise on Cruise’s ineffable movie star quality. There’s no winking admission that Cruise is too small. Instead, when the character walks into a bar, a lawyer’s office or a hospital room, he turns heads because, well, he looks like Tom Cruise and carries himself like Tom Cruise. In other words, Cruise imbues him with his full-on laser-like focus, his hyper-present intensity and even that bizarre, Jerry Maguire-style finger-pointing. Reacher, meanwhile, turns out to be a big enough character – figuratively speaking – to absorb Cruise’s innate Cruise-ness. The result is the star’s best role since Collateral.

It helps that Cruise has once again paired up with a great filmmaker. McQuarrie cut his teeth writing the Oscar-winning script for The Usual Suspects and directing the waaaay-out-there crime-movie-cum-urban-western The Way of the Gun. He’s well versed in writing and directing action with a healthy dose of self-aware machismo, which is perfect for Jack Reacher, particularly since it depends on buying into hoary old lone-wolf tropes that are a hair’s breadth away from being self-parodic.

By the time we meet Reacher in the film, for instance, there’s already been a lot of hushed talk of him in semi-mythic terms. He’s a guy who lives off the grid, who can’t be found unless he wants to be found. McQuarrie, however, undercuts all this with a joke by having him turn up on cue the moment such proclamations are made. It’s a neat way to signal that while we’re expected to take some of the action seriously, we’re also in for a good time.

That’s important because the film does kick off in ultra serious mode with a sniper attack on a group of civilians. Given what’s happened in the US recently, the timing couldn’t be worse, but the opening sequence is meticulously handled. As the victims are picked off one-by-one, McQuarrie keeps the tension and the drama high and the exploitative blood and gore low. He also establishes the plot in admirably swift time. Before this opening salvo is over, the lead detective (David Oyelowo) and the district attorney (Richard Jenkins) already have a military-trained suspect (played by Joseph Sikora) in custody. With a truckload of incontrovertible evidence, they want a signed confession. Instead they get the words “Get Jack Reacher” scrawled on the statement.

What follows is an enjoyably preposterous procedural, one that works hard to subvert expectations by taking stock characters and layering them with interesting details. Chief among these is Werner Herzog’s villain. The barmy Bavarian director of Grizzly Man imbues his line readings with the same strange, philosophical tone he uses in his wondrous documentaries, which makes everything this finger-chewing, cloudy eyed, Soviet Gulag-surviving weirdo say have the awful ring of truth to it – no matter how ludicrously conceived his backstory is. Rosamund Pike is good too as the suspect’s lawyer. She hires Reacher to be her lead investigator in the case and can’t quite work out whether or not she’s attracted to him, something that makes for more interesting sexual chemistry than normal.

The action doesn’t go in quite the expected direction either. There’s a great car chase that seems like it’s gearing up to be an all-out auto pile up, but ends up more of a pared-down tribute to the tyre-screeching chase from Bullitt. Elsewhere, Cruise pours his relentless energy into ridiculously entertaining close-quarter fight scenes that are far more exciting than his more outlandish work on the Mission: Impossible series. Indeed, with the M:I franchise surely set to draw to a close after the next instalment (which McQuarrie has just been hired to helm), a series of Reacher films could probably keep Cruise (already 50) going for the next decade. If that means fewer films like Rock of Ages, then so much the better.