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Jack Reacher (2012)

Movie of the Week (December 26th Edition)

Thanks to a "holiday break" that involved recovering from surgery, a major cold, and a house full of visiting family, my ability to watch and write about movies was severely hampered in December. Best intentions be damned: all signs pointed to "Slow the Hell Down". So I did. Life has now returned to normal, and I'm ready to break my hard(ish), fast(ish) rule about reviewing movies within 48 hours of watching them.

I saw Jack Reacher days before the two films I reviewed last week, Pitch Perfect and Django Unchained. So, why the delay? Simply put, I'm not excited to write about it. In the moment, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's tense, throw-back action thriller was very engaging, but I can't recommend it as a big-screen experience--making this critique late and unenthusiastic. Strap in!

The film stars Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, a former military cop whose disillusionment with the country he served drove him completely off the grid. When a troubled former soldier named James Barr (Joseph Sikora) is accused of sniping five people at a Pittsburgh mall, he asks the authorities to track Reacher down for help. On arrival, the cocky yet ultra-serious loner steps into the middle of a family feud between Barr's public defender, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), and her District Attorney father, Alex (Richard Jenkins). Reacher spends a few days in town, running afoul of various thugs whose employer isn't happy about his digging into the truth about Barr's arrest.

Who's behind the conspiracy? The answer is one part hilarious, one part captivating, and one part lamer than anything I've seen in a thriller in quite awhile. I can't go any further without dipping into spoilers, so feel free to join Reacher off the info grid for a bit; we'll meet up at the last paragraph.

Legendary documentarian Werner Herzog plays The Zec, an evil construction magnate who has set Barr up as a roundabout means of securing more work for his company (it's complicated). Though much has been made of the man behind Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss stepping back in front of the camera, I'm sad to say he's the "hilarious" component of Jack Reacher's troubles. As conceived, The Zec is a pretty terrifying character, and when Herzog is called upon to stare icily at a victim or oversee a man attempting to bite off his own fingers, the performance matches the page.

However, the second he opens his mouth, it's full-on McBain time. I can't tell if this is a matter of delivery or accent, but Herzog sounds eerily like an elderly version of the Simpsons' Arnold Schwarzenegger parody. Sometimes, when McQuarrie gets a bit too carried away with making The Zec one-up the horrors of his own back-story, Herzog evokes the Austrian action hero's black-mark turn as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin.

Fortunately, The Zec works mostly in the shadows, leaving much of the dirty work to Charlie, his steel-eyed second-in-command, played with almost Cruise-level charisma by Jai Courtney. Charlie is used to sitting higher up on the badass food chain than Reacher allows him to be. Both men are masters at manipulating idiots to get what they want, and the movie builds as much to their eventual face-to-face meeting as it does to the truth about Barr's involvement in the shooting. By film's end, when The Zec is shown to be a truly pathetic villain with a wildly out-of-proportion scheme, I wished to God that Charlie had been the heavy all along--thus allowing Courtney's mesmerizing, shit-eating grin more screen time.

Plot aside, Jack Reacher's second big problem is McQuarrie's filmmaking. Heading into the movie, I was mostly familiar with his genius-level, award-winning writing on The Usual Suspects. And it's obvious that McQuarrie studied how Bryan Singer brought that script to screen: Reacher shares a lot of the same shots, edits, and pacing decisions.

What it lacks is subtlety. Sure, this is an unconventional action thriller, by today's standards; there are no explosive, high-wire CG set pieces and much of the story requires a tuned-in audience. But McQuarrie loves to point out, visually, how clever all of his screenplay's details (and, by extension, those from Lee Child's novel, One Shot, which he adapted) are. It's hard to illustrate without beat-by-beat analysis and a laser pointer just how smug many of the scenes are, but McQuarrie definitely performs several gaudy touchdown dances before even catching the ball.

That said, the movie works best when Cruise is simply wandering around town, looking for clues and roughing up dirtbags. The actor does some fine work here, recalling a less compromised but equally cynical version of his Vincent character from Collateral. If you've written him off as a corny, showy action figure, this movie might just change your mind.

I only hope this isn't your first experience seeing Pike, Jenkins, David Oyelowo, or Robert Duvall in a movie. They do very well with what they're given--which are thankless cog roles that only drive home the fact that Jack Reacher is not only the first film in a (hoped-for) franchise, but also the middle novel in a series of books. There's an episodic quality to the film, and the supporting characters are simply bumpers for Cruise's pinball to light up on his way to the high score. We'll likely never see many of these people again, as I'm sure the next Reacher adventure will take place in another town (possibly another country)--with only a passing reference to "that crazy thing in Pittsburgh" tying the series together.

I don't meant to beat up on Jack Reacher too much. It's an okay movie that felt great in the moment. The problem with such films is that there's little reason to revisit them once the mystery has been revealed--especially if the clues were so proudly highlighted along the way that it takes five seconds of half-thought to understand their significance. Where The Usual Suspects had great actors delivering rich dialogue in service of twisted characters, and a plot that demanded one or two more go-'rounds to fully appreciate, this plays more like an enjoyable TV-junk-novel you might enjoy on FX after next Thanksgiving's dessert. Just don't think about the story too much during commercial breaks, or you'll likely never finish it.

Note: I just remembered a meta-component of my viewing experience from a couple weeks ago, which I'll mention only because it affected the way Jack Reacher affected me. I saw the movie shortly after the school shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School. It has been suggested that one of the reasons McQuarrie's film isn't doing so well is because of its emphasis on gun violence. I found it impossible to put Sandy Hook out of my head, especially during the opening scene, in which a nanny is gunned down while running to protect her charge, a six-year-old girl.

As we get further away from that tragedy, I doubt anyone will remember the events preceding Jack Reacher's opening; the association is certainly more tenuous than what happened with The Dark Knight Rises' debut. But I must admit, as someone who is conflicted on the gun issue, it was refreshing to see such a balanced portrayal of gun ownership and usage in the film.

"Cool" weapons are not fetishized here. They're used for good just as much as for evil. In Reacher's world, the people who walk away from armed conflicts are those who have the proper respect and training for these hand-held weapons of mass suffering--as well as a lot of luck. The movie illustrates the fact that any yahoo can wield a handgun, but not everyone knows what to do with one in a crisis situation.

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