Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Jai Courtney, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Alexia Fast, Joseph Sikora, Michael Raymond-James, Vladimir Sizov and Robert Duvall.
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie; based upon the novel ‘One Shot’ by Lee Childs.
Director: Christopher McQuarrie.
A pivotal component of the complex brand called ‘Tom Cruise- Superstar’ is the actor/producer’s innate ability to turn unremarkable B-movie dross into compelling big-screen entertainment. The most savvy and spectacularly successful actor of his generation surrounds himself with quality cohorts and lets his larger-than-life onscreen persona fully engorge each project’s innate commerciality and, mostly, integrity (let’s leave Rock of Ages to one side, for now).
Jack Reacher, Cruise’s much-discussed take on author Lee Childs’ bestselling anti-hero, ticks all those boxes. His ‘quality cohorts’ are Oscar-winning writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), who steps up to direct his first film since the under-rated Way of the Gun; co-stars Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins and well-placed cameos from Robert Duvall and, however unlikely, German auteur Werner Herzog; and, a compelling, convoluted slice of pulpish plotting that recalls Cruise’s own equally daft but no less enjoyable hits The Firm, A Few Good Men and Valkyrie (working from a McQuarrie script).
Unlike those films, the director saves his A-list star’s big reveal until well into the first act. He opens with a wordless, nerve-shredding sequence that tracks the movements of killer James Barr (Joseph Sikora) as he settles, scopes and then slaughters five innocents in downtown Pittsburgh. The ex-military rifleman is apprehended swiftly in a breathless piece of directorial bravado that opens the film with thrilling brio; McQuarrie’s DOP Caleb Deschanel is at the top of his game, lensing a beautiful-looking, expertly-crafted piece of studio filmmaking.
In custody, Barr cops a verbal barrage from investigating officer Emerson (David Oyelowo), allowing McQuarrie’s spin on Child’s hard-boiled dialogue to take flight (“I want you in prison, where the brothers can share you around until your farts sound like yawns”). It is here Barr first asks for Reacher, presaging an entrance suitably charismatic for Cruise’s enigmatic figure. Fans of the novels are baying for blood, claiming a flagrant disregard for their hero’s defining qualities – a towering, scarred ladies man of brutal decisiveness – in the casting of Cruise. Though I am unfamiliar with the books, he seemed perfectly fine in the context of the film.
Reacher teams with defender Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike in a performance frustratingly wavers between doe-eyed sidekick and career tough-girl) and together they begin unravelling the deeply-embedded elements of a mystery involving cold-blooded killer Charlie (Aussie-made-good, Jai Courtney) and dismembered evil-doer ‘The Zec’ (a seething Werner Herzog) that often teeters on the precipice of the ludicrous yet remains compulsively exciting throughout.
At first glance, Reacher may not be much of a stretch for Cruise. He is commanding in key action scenes (a thrilling car chase; a roadside beatdown of five thugs) and skilfully delivers some irony-free ‘80s action hero’ bon mots (“I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot”), but sometimes it seems almost too effortless. The brash cockiness that drove 20 years of blockbuster hits in which he essentially played slight variations on the same character (All the Right Moves; Top Gun, The Color of Money; Rain Man; Days of Thunder) has morphed into a singularly-focussed, self-assured middle-aged presence that borders on arrogant at times.
But when called upon to carry some far-out elements, Cruise shows his worth; he is the personification of the audience’s cynicism, beating the film back into a warped version of reality when it is required of him. It is the empathy that he draws from his unmovable fanbase that makes Cruise’s heroic leads (and his ongoing value to Hollywood) so potent. As the melodrama unfolds, Jack Reacher might occasionally feel like a minor work in Tom Cruise’s filmography; hindsight may reveal it to be one of his most accomplished and defining characterisations.