Jack Reacher is the embodiment of a certain kind of narrow alpha fantasy. He is the best at all the things: the smartest detective, the best driver, the greatest fighter. In the army, he earned all the medals, including one obscure enough that the police investigating him have to look it up. He won the military shooting competition no one in his class had ever won before. He has a photographic memory. He can take on five men at a time in a brawl, after out-bantering and accurately psychoanalyzing them. His mind works faster than anyone else’s; he sees patterns no one else sees. He is Batman without the silly costume. He is the entire A-Team rolled up in one, such that he can disappear like a ghost (though he somehow pulls his military pension each month), but will still walk into a room at the most dramatic moment, just after someone has said, “You don’t find this guy unless he wants to be found.”
Naturally, being so exceptional isolates him in his noble loneliness. He has judged the world and found it wanting. He doesn’t have time for courtesy; he must speak to everyone with curt contempt. In particular, he has no time for women, who only exist in his world as victims to save or to manfully mourn. For those who buy into the extremity of his excellence—for those whose suspension of disbelief rivals the suspension system of the Golden Gate Bridge—he’s a potent fantasy. But for everyone else, it can be tiring listening to subsidiary characters go on and on about him, or watching him stand three steps ahead of everyone else, waiting with annoyance for them to catch up.
Jack Reacher, the first film adaptation drawn from Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books (it adapts the ninth in the series, 2005’s One Shot), begins unimpeachably, with a long, tense, wordless sequence. First a sniper methodically sets up in a Pittsburgh parking garage, takes aim at the riverwalk, and begins picking off people one by one. Then methodical police detective David Oyelowo leads an investigation, assembling copious detailed evidence, building an airtight case, and apprehending the shooter. Only the audience knows Oyelowo somehow has the wrong man.
It’s a potent setup, but it’s rendered laughable via hyperbole at every turn. Rosamund Pike steps in as defense attorney for the wrongly accused man (Joseph Sikora), but she’s only doing it as a dramatic blow against her D.A. father (Richard Jenkins). Investigating the victims, she learns each one of them had a cop-on-the-last-day-before-retirement tearjerker story: One was a nanny who had just finished saving up enough money for a trip to China, but had put it off just a few days in order to attend her charge’s 7th birthday. Another was buying tickets so her son could attend his very first baseball game, as a reward for turning his life around. A third was just days away from her 10th wedding anniversary. (She explains all this in a weepy speech worthy of Phoebe Cates talking about her father in Gremlins.) And this level of heightened emotion and emphatic breast-beating continues when Tom Cruise enters the picture as Jack Reacher, former military police investigator and only person on Earth capable of unpacking the conspiracy no one else knows exists.
The trouble with Jack Reacher isn’t the title character’s world-class skills, which come standard to heroes from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond to Superman. It’s the film’s over-the-top tone in establishing them, and its disinterest in anything else. For instance, in Pike, who seems to come with lifelong copious baggage involving her D.A. father. While their conflict is repeatedly mined for screaming drama, it’s never actually explained. Pike contributes to the movie only as bait, foil, and sounding board; it’s her thankless job to float theory after theory on the audience’s behalf, so Cruise can dismissively put her in her place.
Which he does with an utter lack of humanity. Cruise played a similarly capable hero in the Mission: Impossible movies, and cocky, smug mavericks have been his stock in trade from Top Gun to Days Of Thunder to Minority Report to Knight And Day. But this one is a particularly poisonous variant, one proud of his lack of human connection, and without any meaningful chinks in his armor. When a young woman approaches him in a bar, he shoots her down with a dismissive, “The cheapest woman tends to be the one you pay for.” About the closest the film comes to cracking a smile is when he methodically beats a man unconscious with another man’s head. There’s an unpleasantly condescending, moralizing tone to Jack Reacher, worthy of Atlas Shrugged; his abilities are meant to justify anything he chooses to do, whether it’s intimidating that bar-girl into giving him her car, or murdering an unarmed man out of a sense of entitled justice.
And that’s a pity, because the film’s action is solid. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie last directed in 2000 (his debut, The Way Of The Gun), and his scripts include Valkyrie, the upcoming Jack The Giant Slayer, and the tight, economical cult favorite The Usual Suspects, which won him an Oscar. He stages fistfights, a protracted gunfight, and a long car chase with a welcome balance of visceral intensity and visual clarity. The wordless crime and investigation that opens Jack Reacher amounts to a lean, stylish short film, and the subsequent half-hour sparks with flat, clipped ping-pong banter. When Robert Duvall eventually shows up as a gun-range owner with his own ways of judging people, he sets the film on a more easygoing path, where tension and thrills don’t need to come at the expense of every non-Jack Reacher character, and where bonding of a sort can take place, even if only in its grimmest, most emotionally protected form. And while the villain gets short shrift, he’s perfectly cast, perhaps the only man in Hollywood that could pull off his thoroughly ridiculous character and background. (See Spoiler Space.)
Even the mystery is relatively compelling. Though the central conspiracy turns on some unlikely villain choices, it’s at least a bold and impressively elaborate plan, and the film doles out revelations at a steady clip that almost justifies its 130-minute sprawl. In particular, while the exploration of Sikora’s history is largely used to further establish Reacher’s skills, the sideline into his past complicates the story in ways that prevent it from proceeding predictably from point A to point B, and that make Sikora more than yet another doe-eyed innocent.
Perhaps most satisfyingly, Jack Reacher takes combat seriously, respecting the brutality of physical combat and the lethality of guns, and only rarely shrugging off the impact of either. This amounts to a more realistic approach than anything else in the film. Again, the problem isn’t that Jack Reacher is terrific. The problem is that the film works so hard to pile on praise for an unlikeable, unapproachable, mechanical process of a man that it removes all stakes for the viewers. There’s a reason Keyser Söze doesn’t take over the narrative of The Usual Suspects after Kevin Spacey tells his story: He isn’t a man, he’s a deliberately over-the-top legend. Similarly, Jack Reacher isn’t much of a man, and Jack Reacher isn’t the story of a man. It’s mythmaking for self-satisfied sociopaths.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Jack Reacher’s Spoiler Space.