Tom Cruise wanders through Jack Reacher: Never Go Back like a man in search of a better movie. Or at least a better character. Cruise's strengths as a screen actor—his easy warmth and cheerful spirit—get no outlet here. As in his last Reacher film—likewise based on one of Lee Child's never-ending series of interchangeable tough-guy novels—Cruise is stuck playing a man who's not a lot more than a cipher. He's a hard-boiled guy traveling aimlessly around the country by bus and thumb. A toothbrush is his only luggage. He fuels up in cheap diners and pancake joints. His preferred mode of communication is a punch in the face.
There's not much to play here, and Cruise is reduced to characterizing Reacher mostly via clenched jaw and distracting facial tics. Worse yet, he's been lumbered with a story about family and feelings—which is not and never will be Reacher's thing. This incomprehension results in Cruise and his costar, Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill in the Avengers movies), being trapped in more poky reaction shots than any movie of this sort should have to sustain, allowing a teenage girl—likable wisecracker Danika Yarosh—to sidle away with the film.
The movie opens with a scene that has no connection to the rest of the movie, and serves only to establish Reacher's radical lack of people skills. We come upon him sitting in—where else?—a diner, having just dispatched a quartet of thugs out in the parking lot, where they'll soon be gathering up their teeth. "Who are you?" asks a just-arrived lawman. "The guy you didn't count on," Reacher says, in his usual unhelpful manner.
He puts in a call to his old outfit in Washington, and gets Major Susan Turner (Smulders) on the line. Turner is a Reacher fangirl ("You're a legend around here," she says). Reacher is intrigued (I think—it's hard to say for sure) and heads for D.C. Upon arriving, he learns that Turner has been arrested on charges of espionage—something about a cock-up in Afghanistan that left two of her investigators dead. Reacher doesn't buy that, and he determines to bust Turner out of an army jail. Together, they overcome her jailers' furious opposition to this plan, and we see that Turner is of course as much of a butt-kicker as Reacher. Next, they start running around Washington. There's a standard-issue car chase, and Turner pulls on a baseball cap as a disguise (although since she's in the company of the urgently sought and undisguised Reacher, you wonder why she bothers).
The plot is mildly complicated but never engrossing. Reacher has learned that he may be a father, and soon he and Turner have been joined by his purported offspring, 15-year-old Samantha Dayton (Yarosh). At this point, the two grownups step back and let Sam bring some cute humor to the proceedings. Reacher, upstaged, looks on in wordless befuddlement; Turner bonds with the girl and starts schooling her in the butt-kicking arts. Sam delivers the movie's best lines. ("You're very intense," she informs the perma-smoldering Reacher.)
They all decamp for New Orleans, where a shady government contracting outfit called Parasource is headquartered. A top Parasource thug (stubbly Patrick Heusinger, of TV's Quantum Break) is assigned to deal with the interlopers. There's a lot more running around and several bone-crunching beat-downs, none of them rising to the level of setpieces. (Director Edward Zwick's action scenes are encrusted with the by-now-musty trappings of the Bourne movies, right down to composer Henry Jackman's churning string motifs and the nimble cinematography of Oliver Wood, who shot the first three Bourne films.)
There's an international conspiracy to be discovered, of course, and Reacher and Turner naturally discover it. We also get to meet the Parasource chieftain who's supposed to be the movie's most hissable bad guy, but who turns out to be instantly forgettable.
This isn't a bad movie, but it's flat and unexciting. I know the first Reacher film, while similarly limp, made more than $200-million dollars worldwide. But is that really reason enough for Cruise to keep wasting his talent on such by-the-numbers megaplex fodder? Never Go Back is a meaningless subtitle (go back to where?), but for Cruise it might serve as a useful career advisory.