JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK
Review by James Murphy
A Tom Cruise Production
Director: Edward Zwick
Stars: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh
Genre: Action /Thriller
2 hrs approx
Reacher (Cruise) is a drifter /investigator and military veteran. A former Major, he returns to his old base to meet a blind date: his successor in the post (Smulders). When she is framed for murder, Reacher steps in and helps, only to find himself framed in similar circumstances. They must team up, escape and evade the authorities, unmask a high level conspirator and bond with an innocent girl (Yarosh). Cue Tom Cruise’s Greatest Hits in one competently packaged, entertaining and satisfying night out at the Movies. It’s a thriller, a road trip, an adventure, a detective story and possibly a family drama..
Tom Cruise is at a most interesting stage of his career. Too old to play the young buck but still far too young and vital to settle into mentor cameos or boo hiss baddies. Besides which: he LOVES working and adores the art form of movies. So, he is always in work. When you are sleeping, he is busy, self-improving. Very rare that we have a Cruise free year and quite right too.
There is a certainty and security about knowing Tom will be there, flashing that smile, doing that run and at the same time, pushing himself to new heights, annually. The drawback is he cannot always innovate. There has to be some filler, some plodding: the odd flop or competent and craftsman-like piece that nonetheless will not reinvent wheels but will no doubt punctuate television schedules 30 years later, when you are the Grandfather and Cruise is still running on film in his 80s.
This latest effort, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK falls into that camp of competence and craftsmanship. It sustains and indeed models the very best of Tom Cruise’s skill and charm, without being a game changer. See also: Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone in the early 1990s: they had career renaissances, via a consistent type of role and movie, before a further brief lull and then final rediscovery of what made them stars in the first place.
Patriot Games, The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, The Specialist, Cliffhanger, Assassins: view this latest Cruise production in that same spirit. It even looks and feels on occasion like a 90s period piece (Cruise’s own early to mid peak: A Few Good Men, The Firm, Mission:Impossible). Add a little Captain America: Winter Soldier and Lee Child’s own Reacher novels mythology and bingo: we have a movie. See also: Denzel Washington in Equalizer and Liam Neeson in A Walk Among The Tombstones.
You will get the usual hallmarks of genre and its history here. Washington Tourist sights: check. Good military vs bad military: check. Great stunt choreography and action: yes! Worthy speeches about politics /sexism / the truth / doing the right thing: yep! Awkward adult /kid bonding banter: absolutely.
These are tired tropes. But it doesn’t make it ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ to deploy them on film. No story is 100% original and Producers actively seek boxes that can be ticked in pitch meetings. The main question is one of execution. It’s less about what one says as how they say it. And this movie is indeed an enjoyable and well made product. Every scene could have been pasted from previous movies in Cruise’s own back catalogue; but that is what happens when one is as prolific and proficient as he. There will be overlap and repetition. But it’s GOOD work and ironically enough: one of his great performances.
Yes, you get a a flash of that grin and snappy talk and the Paramount Pictures preface and that fast, big armed run and emphatic hand gesturing that define the brand of Mr. Cruise. But this is a studied and subtle performance. Little gestures that convey Reacher’s self belief, menace, competence. Even the body has been adapted. Gone are the perfect pecs of Mission: Impossible and in is a slightly less honed /toned but still imposing physique.
Much is made of Tom not being tall enough or fat enough to play the Reacher created by Lee Child (incidentally, like me, Child attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham: the happiest and best study environment, ever). And yes, ok, viusally, when you read a Reacher novel, it’s tough to picture Tom Cruise in the lead. That’s irrelevant here, though. He conveys the character and I absolutely believe him in the action, save one minor and momentary misstep (he looks about 12 when they put him in an MP uniform).
This is all about subtle looks to camera, the same way Cruise met the previous challenges of playing the likes of Vampire Lestat and Vietnam Vet, Ron Kovic. And it’s performed against a backdrop of conspiracy and action and frustrated idealism that he modeled so well in the likes of The Firm and A Few Good Men.
So this is a must see, should you be a fan of Tom Cruise. Think of it as his transitional phase before he finds his next big re-invention. What if you don’t care for him, though? Well: shame on you, because he’s a great kid and works hard. Fear not though: each to their own.
You will probably be wowed by Danika Yarosh, here playing a 15 year old girl in distress who may, or may not, be ‘connected’ to Reacher. It’s a difficult one to explore here without spoiling it but I think you get me? She plays beautifully against Cruise and is a natural actress; think budget Jennifer Lawrence, who can grow into bigger parts in years ahead; precocious but not bratty and streetwise yet endearingly innocent. You will fear for her safety in some tense scenes and you might just shed a tear when she gives Reacher a hug.
There are of course things that do not work. Do not expect anything original here. Even the final plot twist has arguably been done before and better by James Bond in The Living Daylights. There is a notable lack of any big hitter (a Jack Nicholson, Tommy Lee Jones, Gene Hackman, or Robert Duvall) and both Tom Cruise and indeed military conspiracy movies desperately NEED those to play against. And the musical score is a tad tepid (just imagine what John Williams could have done here or Carter Burwell; Henry Jackman needs to rediscover the brilliance he showed with X Men: First Class).
Consequently, there is a lack of truly anchoring tension or conflict and that in turn numbs the cohesion of the chase dimension to the movie in places and stretches the credibility of the heroes’ abilities to move so freely while supposedly being wanted for murder. There is certainly none of the intrigue and mystery that made the first Reacher film so compelling. This could, in fact, be a television film, if that, such is the throwaway nature of the stakes and related twists.
The script also shouts loudly about sexism in places, only to give Cobie Smulders a muddled role in the film that’s neither sidekick nor love interest nor true equal to Cruise. Are they hinting at romantic chemistry? It’s never clear and that is deeply unsatisfying in what is otherwise, in places, quite a touchingly personal movie. Somehow, Rosamund Pike managed to stand out better in the first Reacher film. I might be biased, because I adore Ms Pike. Or maybe the first Reacher film simply deployed its personnel more evenly?
Final Warning (to use Reacher speak?): JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK will not reinvent any wheels. But it does keep them turning with charm and competence. Whilst not the kind of epic one associates with Director, Edward Zwick and by no means a leap for Tom Cruise, you can simply enjoy the movie, at face value: an engaging yet disposable and derivative thriller that will satisfactorily recharge you and aid and abet an escape into the weekend. Can take or leave a third movie but would probably take, based on having taken this one. B+ Not a Distinguished Service Purple Heart /Silver Star Movie, but nonetheless Commended and Passed for Active Duty.