Lee Child’s Jack Reacher crime novels—17 of them so far—are a film franchise waiting to happen. Judging by Jack Reacher, the new Tom Cruise movie, I’d say they’ll have to wait a little longer.
The movie’s central problem is one of casting. Child’s protagonist is a former army major and top military police investigator. He’s a scruffy six-foot-five and weighs 250 pounds, and these are key attributes of the character (he’s a formidable butt-kicker). I’m not a Tom Cruise hater, but I think we can agree that this is not a description of Tom Cruise.
The Reacher of the books is ultra-hard-boiled. He has no job, no fixed address, and no car (he travels around by bus, or just walks). His possessions are minimal (he owns a toothbrush), and he has little interest in snappy dressing (he buys cheap clothes, tosses them when they rumple, and buys some more). He’s also uncommonly taciturn (a constant refrain in the books is, “Reacher said nothing”). This is silly stuff, but in his sturdily constructed novels, Child really makes it work. Cruise tries it all on, but it doesn’t really suit him.
The film’s plot, derived from the author’s 2005 best-seller One Shot, has Reacher arriving in Pittsburgh (by bus) to involve himself in a murder case. An ex-army sniper named Barr (Joseph Sikora) is charged with mowing down five innocent people for no reason. Top cop Emerson (David Oyelowo) has assembled enough evidence—a ballistic match with Barr’s rifle, a fingerprint at the scene—to give the local DA (Richard Jenkins) an airtight case. Helen Rodin, the DA’s lawyer daughter, is defending Barr, who has asked for Reacher to be brought in. When he arrives, we learn that Reacher knew Barr in the army, that he investigated another mass shooting of which Barr was definitely guilty, and that he remains righteously angry that Barr escaped justice on a technicality. “I didn’t come here to help him,” Reacher tells Helen. “I came to bury him.”
As he starts nosing around, though, Reacher begins to realize that Barr is not guilty of these latest slayings. His meddling appears to irritate somebody, and one night in a barroom, Reacher is approached by a cute young hussy (Alexia Fast) who sets him up for a parking-lot beating by a gang of muscular friends. Reacher dispatches these lugs without breaking much of a sweat and digs deeper into the case. Soon he flushes a group of Russian thugs led by a mysterious codger called the Zec. This character is played by veteran German filmmaker Werner Herzog with a milky dead eye and an unfortunate line in repartee. (Outlining his criminal enterprise, the Zec tells Reacher, “Ve take vhat can be taken. Zis is vhat ve do.”) But then writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has cooked up some ripe lines for Cruise, too. (Addressing one ill-fated thug, he says, “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot.”)
The movie is studded with action scenes of a remarkably unenterprising sort: a thoroughly generic car chase, some bang-bang rat-a-tat gunplay. There is one novel moment in which Cruise enters a scene driving a car backward, although I remain unclear about exactly why he does this. Even more curious is the picture’s complete lack of sexy. There’s not even a passing hug, and the likeable Rosamund Pike drifts through most of the proceedings with an expression of open-mouthed incomprehension. In the movie’s funniest shot, we see her conversing with Reacher across a small room, looking lovely but entirely dwarfed by one of Cruise’s shirtless pecs bulging hugely in the foreground of the frame. The picture needed either more of this hoot-worthy sort of thing, or none at all.
The movie doesn’t even seem to be searching for a style that would provide some pulpy context for a character like Jack Reacher. And Cruise, who can of course be a fine actor and is already a well-established action star, is wrong for this role. The film’s ending foreshadows a sequel, but that seems unlikely—it would require a new lead. (The best candidate I’ve heard mentioned is the tall, taciturn Irish actor Ray Stevenson, most recently seen playing a tall, taciturn Ukrainian gang chief on Dexter.) Anyone still interested in turning the Reacher books into a franchise might be best advised to back off for a bit, and then start over.