When Alan Ritchson was initially cast as the star of Prime Video’s recently launched Reacher, most of the discussion focused on how an adaptation of Lee Child’s long-running series of crime thriller novels had finally cast an actor big and burly enough to match Childs’ descriptions of 6-foot-5 ex-military behemoth Jack Reacher. Tom Cruise, who played Reacher in two movies, is neither big nor burly, though he will endure a beating meant for a much larger man.
What was not fully appreciated when Ritchson’s casting was announced was what a secret weapon Reacher had acquired. This charming beefcake bruiser is a superlative comic performer—and while almost no one seems to understand that, it’s precisely because of that rarely tapped talent that Reacher works.
Yes, Ritchson is a very big boy—sorry, man—and his frame is impressive. But it’s the engine running under that smooth-purring, beefy chassis that makes a champ, and Ritchson’s engine runs on pure, unleaded wily comic chops. (That metaphor worked, right?)
On one hand, it’s understandable why Ritchson’s talents for comedy have largely gone unnoticed. Most of us have an unfortunate tendency to judge books by their covers, and the man has one heck of a cover. He stands proudly alongside Jason Momoa, John Cena, and Dwayne “The Cuddliest Rock You Ever Did See” Johnson in the pantheon of chiseled talent who waited patiently for an opportunity to flex their goofball muscles. And even then, wrestlers like Cena and Johnson presumably had an easier time of it, given their entire performing careers were built on a foundation of campy excess.
But on the other, it’s not like there haven’t been signs of the sharp-eyed sensibility hiding under those bulging biceps since the very beginning. After a national TV debut stripping for Paula Abdul in the third-season premiere of American Idol (yes, really), Ritchson’s first onscreen role was on Smallville, playing none other than Aquaman himself, Arthur Curry.
Admittedly, the so-so WB series didn’t exactly give him a lot to play with, making the character a stock example of the “earnest dim bulb” type, but already, Ritchson was leaning into the comic elements, making even his first greeting just over-the-top enough (a breathy, “heyyy”) to seem like something else was going on beyond the usual himbo routine.
For anyone paying attention to this sentient two tons of fun with fries on the side, Ritchson’s gifts as a comic actor came to the fore in Blue Mountain State. The raunchy sitcom spent three seasons riding a fine line between delightfully campy irony and repellant sexism, and while reaction to the provocative show varied, Ritchson dove headfirst into the first half of that equation in the role of lunkheaded team captain Thad Castle.
Blue Mountain State was his proving ground for demonstrating just how funny he could be. As in the below clip, where he recounts a drug bust, the actor pushed the material so far past over-the-top that it became like something out of a John Waters film, with Ritchson the bug-eyed muse.
In between Blue Mountain State’s cancellation and the arrival of its crowd-funded film sequel, The Rise Of Thadland (which Ritchson co-wrote alongside series creators Eric Falconer and Chris Romano), Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with the lovable lug, often sticking the actor in low-responsibility, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him tough guy roles in things like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, or underneath mounds of motion-capture technology in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Even when he got a chance to play around in a ridiculous sandbox, as he did on Syfy’s absurdist grindhouse-homage action series Blood Drive, the show mostly wasted its star in the thankless position of straight man, a noble Boy Scout having to underplay nearly every reaction shot.
But throughout this period, Ritchson was steadily racking up guest appearances on TV comedies from New Girl to Workaholics to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, refining different facets of his oddball comics chops. (To say nothing of his perfectly on-point appearance in the social-media satire episode of Black Mirror.) And he was simultaneously working out the secret to harnessing his buffoonish charms even when not in character, most notably on the short-lived NBC variety show I Can Do That. It’s been an unusual trajectory, career-wise, to say the least.
But all of that helps explain why he’s so damn excellent as Jack Reacher. Here’s a role that could have easily gone to some jacked-up meathead better at throwing punches than thinking fast—in other words, a Schwarzenegger type. But the creative team at Amazon knew what they were doing by casting Ritchson.
Reacher is essentially a hulking Sherlock Holmes, someone equally comfortable deducing whodunit from the tiniest of clues and poking out a criminal’s eyes. And the first half of Reacher’s premiere does exactly that—lets Ritchson sit, without talking. And sit. And sit. Yet, you never begin to worry he’s just the trophy-wife equivalent of a lead character, because that mischievous twinkle behind his stoic expression makes it look as though he’s constantly thinking of a hilarious joke, albeit one he doesn’t want to have to take the time to explain.
It’s that ace understanding of what makes a character in a mystery compelling—the sense that they’re always a step ahead of the conversation, that there’s something weirder and funnier hiding behind the calm outward demeanor, that makes Alan Ritchson’s performance so good. It elevates the solidly B-movie material into the realm of pleasing pulp. He gives the audience permission to have fun with all the bloodshed and cruelty, which is essential for the show to succeed.
Reacher has already been renewed for a second season and is by all accounts a big hit for the streaming service, meaning we’re going to hopefully get a lot more of Ritchson’s superb performance. So let me make a plea: Emmy nominee, Alan Ritchson.
These sorts of roles are usually so thankless and underappreciated: Act like a big strong, silent man and hit people while saving the day. But if you’ve ever seen a bad version of that (and who hasn’t), you know how difficult it is to make it soulful—or better yet, funny.
Ritchson does both, and by embodying a character in such a sly, underplayed manner that nonetheless speaks volumes with just his expressions, he’s proving what those of us who have followed his career have known all along: This big beefy boy is ready for stardom, because he’s smart enough to know how silly it all is.