On a sunny morning in Pittsburgh, a sniper kills five seemingly randomly-chosen people in a harrowing, but superbly filmed, sequence. All the evidence points clearly at James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former Army sniper. When questioned by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins), his only message to them is, “Get Jack Reacher.” Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a former soldier who served in the military police and has a list of decorations as long as Rambo, and his connection with Barr is that he once investigated Barr for killing civilian contractors in Iraq, though the charges were made classified on a technicality. Reacher sees no reason why Barr would call for him, nor does he see any reason why Barr shouldn’t get the death penalty for the latest shooting. But civil rights-minded lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) — the estranged daughter of the District Attorney — is hoping that Reacher could use his skills to find enough evidence to prove that Barr is insane, which would give him life in prison instead. Reacher decides to investigate, and as he does he discovers that the killings were not random and Barr may not have committed the crime at all.
The most surprising thing about Jack Reacher isn’t Cruise’s performance — after all, Cruise has been pulling off full-fledged action roles since the first Mission: Impossible movie — but how many funny parts there are in the movie. In many ways the movie seems to parody and riff on common traits of 70s and 80s “man on a mission” action movies. In that sense, it’s a great mix of a action-thriller like the Bourne movies and a dash of the humor of James Bond. For example, a clever scene demonstrates why it’s a bad idea to fight with a baseball bat in a small bathroom, and the virtually indestructible (and incredibly lucky) Reacher is a definite throwback to the resourceful action heroes who remained unstoppable without needing bodybuilder physiques of the Dirty Harry era. But the wit in the script and on the screen is what separates Jack Reacher from a Jason Statham movie by infusing it with something else besides great action. In addition to the character, the tremendous car chase film is another highlight. I complimented Statham’s Safe for having one of the best car chase scenes in years, but Jack Reacher takes the crown for perhaps the best car chase scene in the twentieth century.
Much has been made about Cruise not looking the part of Reacher, who is the main character in seventeen novels by Lee Childs. In the novels, Reacher is about a foot taller than the diminutive Cruise and a hundred pounds heavier, but Cruise does bring his usual dedication and intensity to the role meaning that there’s no doubt that he’s a tough guy on screen. Cruise might not be the Reacher of the novels, but his Reacher is a great character in his own right. However, I can’t help thinking that another actor would be more believable in the role, but then again, could any other 50 year old actor could pull the role off as convincingly?
The rest of the cast is equally stellar. Pike’s Helen is a perfect “Watson” for Reacher, and both Oyello and Jenkins’ performances leave the audience guessing on what their respective angles are in this conspiracy. And though he enters the film late, Robert Duvall adds some great humor and heart to the final forty-five minutes. But it’s the villains who are the most remarkable, led by Jai Courtney — who will be John McClane, Jr. in A Good Day to Die Hard — makes a great “physical” threat villain, but it is Werner Herzog as The Zec who really shines. The German Herzog’s character is Siberian, and he uses an accent that is undeniably reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s if Arnold ever decided to do a full-out evil role (no, I don’t count Mr. Freeze). He is chillingly effective as the man behind the curtain pulling the strings.
As a whole, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (who remains best known for penning the brilliant script for The Usual Suspects) has done an excellent job of making an enjoyable big-budget action film which offers so much more than similar films made by less talented directors like McG, Rob Cohen, or Brett Ratner. It’s a hell of a lot more clever than the average action film, and in an era where snazzy CGI and 3D effects have replaced grim-and-gritty physicality, Jack Reacher is a breath of fresh air for both action films and Tom Cruise as an actor.
Rating: Jack Reacher is one of the better action-thrillers of 2012, and is surprisingly a lot more fun than you’d expect. (8/10)