As Jack Reacher begins, a meticulous assassin (Jai Courtney) is preparing his weapons for the massacre that becomes the film’s central event. The cold thud and clank of mechanisms, from a lever pumping to the cocking of a rifle, is what’s heard, while the methodical shooting of five innocents on a riverside park in Pittsburgh is seen through the killer’s scope in a detached view of the actions. The murders are framed on a psychotic erstwhile soldier, Barr (Joseph Sikora), who ominously asks for the titular investigator (Tom Cruise) to prove his innocence, before Barr is beaten into a coma. It’s interesting to note that in contrast to how Courtney’s nemesis is introduced, all forceful exactitude, Cruise’s hero enters the film through images of distinct style and sex: picking out clothing and a pair of good, worn-in boots, watching a lover get dressed, and eliciting a flirty smile from a cashier. Though he’ll use all manner of weapons throughout the film, it’s made perfectly clear that Reacher needs little more than his rugged essence to dominate any situation.
The chase between Reacher and the essentially nameless sniper is ostensibly the battle between style and efficiency, charm and skill, but writer-director Christopher McQuarrie shows little of his own personality, though he certainly keeps things moving. As screenwriter, McQuarrie busies the by-the-numbers plot with various complications: small-time villains, odd innocents, sly threats and insinuations, and double-crosses. Barr’s attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike), whom Reacher is assisting, and her district attorney father, Rodin (Richard Jenkins), are in many scenes, but are integral to few, if any, and this goes similarly for David Oyelowo’s no-nonsense cop, Emerson. Their main function in the script is to form a sonic backbone of rigid legality, rendering Reacher’s violent actions at once rebellious, moral, righteous, and exciting.
McQuarrie obviously sides with Reacher and prefers style, but the Valkyrie scribe is chiefly a stylist of words and comically mordant scenarios. A scene wherein two hoods go after Reacher and end up beating each other up more than him is distinctive of the same hand that penned The Usual Suspects and The Way of the Gun, but as a visual artist, he proves remarkably scattershot and often inept. He favors faces as primary focus, either in close-ups or medium shots, which limits the talents of many of his performers, including his star. The casting of Werner Herzog as a decrepit elder villain who chewed off his own fingers is bold and pays off to a certain extent, but the way McQuarrie and his editors depict him almost entirely in close-ups robs the film of a great amount of Herzog’s undeniable presence. The filmmaker’s welcome, campy appearance feels more like a calculated appeal by McQuarrie to Herzog’s fan base.
There’s a curious anxiousness at the root of Jack Reacher, a earnestly feigned, inconsistent attempt to be unique in a familiar genre, but Cruise, an undeniably magnetic performer, works against that. Though not a good movie, Knight and Day made use of Cruise’s inherent oddness by forming the film’s narrative core around the question of whether his super-spy was a liberated freedom fighter or a dangerous psychotic; Cruise was allowed (sadly, in moderation) to let out the wildness that we’ve come to know is raging underneath his celebrity façade. As Reacher, however, he’s asked to accentuate a hard-shelled masculinity without much sense of subversion. Reacher is cynical, blithely misogynistic, sarcastic, and yet essentially humorless, none of which plays to Cruise’s strengths, but McQuarrie seems ignorant to this fact. Under a more manic and subversive stylist, such as Verhoeven or De Palma, this sort of project would soar, but McQuarrie’s direction is clunky and, at its best moments, simply competent.
A mildly intriguing fiasco, Jack Reacher takes a number of careless tonal shifts, including a haltingly terrible get-to-know-the-victims aside, and its telling that its most successful sequence is one of technical oomph rather than emotional allure. After seeing the body of a friendly witness, Reacher speeds off after the killers, who are driving a sleek, vaguely European car, in his busted red Chevelle SS. The chase is a thrilling centerpiece, upending the messy climactic assault in a rock quarry, and it’s all ruthless efficiency: squealing tires, roaring motors, and forceful metallic impact. Indeed, the film’s most telling image is Reacher driving into oncoming traffic, the sound of the car’s furious engine engulfing the sonic landscape, while the villains quietly make it through the other side of the tunnel. The product of an unsure, overcompensating workaday director, Jack Reacher is as incompetent, manipulative, safe, and disposable as any number of nickel-and-dime actioners, but goes to great, unconvincing lengths to insist it’s different, which is the very definition of pretentious.