The new Tom Cruise vehicle “Jack Reacher” will undoubtedly be praised for its stripped-down approach to the action-thriller. No over-the-top action sequences, no globetrotting escapades: just a sarcastic tough guy cracking skulls and trying to get to the bottom of a twisty murder mystery. But despite the film’s old-school pleasures, “Jack Reacher” isn’t quite as cunning as it wants to be. They may not make ’em like this anymore, but back when they did, they tended to be a little more vibrant.
Based on author Lee Child’s “One Shot,” one of a series of Jack Reacher novels, the movie stars Cruise as mysterious drifter Reacher, who used to be an Army investigator. Summoned to Pittsburgh in connection to a seemingly cut-and-dried mass killing—five random people gunned down by a deranged former military sniper—Reacher begins to believe that the D.A.’s suspect isn’t responsible for the crime. With the help of a young defense attorney (Rosamund Pike), Reacher tries to track down the real shooter.
Directed and adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, best known for his Oscar-winning “The Usual Suspects” script, the film proves he has a feel for the material’s noir-ish, darkly comic tone, but there’s not a lot of narrative ingenuity beyond two superb set pieces: one at the beginning as we see the shootings through the sniper’s POV; and a later one involving probably the most inventive way of eluding arrest in quite some time. McQuarrie’s flinty style gives “Jack Reacher” a B-movie pulpiness, but that’s not enough to enliven a drab mystery populated by stock crime-film characters.
One of the movie’s potential novelties is the presence of celebrated, eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog as Reacher’s nemesis, a shadowy figure known as “the Zec.” Those familiar with Herzog’s loony, mystical narration in documentaries like “Grizzly Man” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” hoped that he could provide a loopy, unpredictable energy to “Jack Reacher,” but, alas, he too feels hemmed in by the mundane material, offering some minute amusement around the edges but not integrated into the story well enough to leave much of an impression.
As for Cruise, fans of the Child novels objected to the star’s casting, arguing that he’s far too diminutive to play the hulking, imposing Reacher. Be that as it may, Cruise acquits himself rather well, delivering a reliably committed performance as a badass who prefers avoiding emotional entanglements. Cruise bulks up as best as he can, and he has playful sexual chemistry with Pike, which is only heightened because they resist going to bed with one another. But “Jack Reacher” ultimately proves too formulaic—you may find yourself longing for a little over-the-top globetrotting.
Critic’s Score: C+
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Casting by Mindy Marin
Starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Robert Duvall