“Jack Reacher” is based on Lee Child’s “One Shot,” the ninth mystery novel in a series of 17 that have cumulatively sold over 60 million copies worldwide, but you’d never guess this by only watching the film, which is exceedingly unexceptional. Paramount executives could have saved a lot of money on licensing fees by simply picking a script out of the “Detective Movies” filing cabinet in the studio basement instead; the resulting product couldn’t have been any less exciting than “Jack Reacher.”
The source material was adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, who is most famous for his Oscar-winning script “The Usual Suspects.” Unlike that movie, which housed a genuinely surprising third-act twist regarding the identity of its antagonist, “Jack Reacher” reveals that a Russian mob boss (Werner Herzog) ordered its inciting criminal act—a seemingly random sniper-shooting of five people—fairly early on. Thus, the film’s only source of suspense is the eponymous rogue-detective protagonist’s (Tom Cruise) investigation of whether the police arrested the right shooter or an innocent man.
Which is to say, there’s very little suspense. Given that the shooting suspect is an Army veteran—a character few Hollywood films would dare portray negatively, despite this man’s sordid backstory—his innocence is near absolute.
That “Jack Reacher” plays less as a whodunnit than a meditation on the aftermath of a crime is almost certainly by design, as the generally sharp McQuarrie would not have disclosed the shooter’s employer—even with the great, scenery-chewing Herzog at his disposal—had he really wanted to keep the mystery-level high. This is McQuarrie’s one admirably unconventional writing choice, but it’s betrayed by his direction, which is conducted as if the story is, in fact, your average reveal-dependent thriller. “Jack Reacher” contains none of the rich atmosphere or existential thematic force that would enhance its less theatrical plot. Instead, the film generically follows Reacher from lead to lead, with fewer narrative gimmicks than the standard genre entry, but nothing compelling to take their place, either.
The other big problem with the movie is the casting of Tom Cruise, whose established image doesn’t line up with the Jack Reacher character. Reacher, an ex-military police major, may share Ethan Hunt’s cunning and intellect, but he also has to do a lot of thankless kicking ass and taking names, two duties that are outside of Hunt’s “Mission: Impossible” brand of heroism. Cruise has neither the imposing physical presence—he’s 10 inches shorter than the Reacher in the books—nor the sense of raw machismo required for the character. The actor’s natural charisma somewhat compensates for the ill fit, but the only time I truly believed him in the role was during a quintessentially Cruiseian car chase.
The movie’s only real thrills rest in two of its supporting performances. The aforementioned Herzog, a long way away from his usual home behind the camera of an art film, is deliciously good as the ominous villain. Even though the mobster’s motivations are never made crystal-clear, you’ll hardly notice thanks to Herzog’s infectiously malevolent energy, which reaches its height in a scene that involves an especially creative method of finger amputation. Also memorable is Robert Duvall, playing a gun range owner who lends Reacher a helping hand during the climax, exuding a gruffness that Cruise could have stood to borrow.
“Jack Reacher” is presumably intended to kick off a whole series, but I can’t imagine anyone being excited to line up for the second installment, based on this tepid starter. Now that he’s 50, Cruise should seize the opportunity to hang up his action-star leather jacket and work on projects that require real acting. Let someone more apt to fill Reacher’s shoes headline a reboot in ten years from now, long after this film has finished disintegrating on basic cable.