Reacher Drifts Onto Television, Ready To Punch Through Some Mysteries

Fans of the books will enjoy Amazon Prime’s series.


Reacher. Available now on Amazon Prime.

Before we get too deeply into this, full disclosure: I wrote part of Amazon Prime's new series, Reacher.

Well, one line, anyway. Fifteen minutes or so into the pilot, in a flashback in which a bloodied, teenaged Jack Reacher shows up at home, his exasperated mother implores him: "Reacher, Reacher, why does trouble always seem to find you?" (Yeah, she doesn't use his first name, either.) Though I'm not credited in the screenplay, this is a line I have repeatedly uttered—shouted, sometimes—at Reacher over the past 20 years as I read Lee Child's books about him. He drifts into town on a bus and within a few pages, various deplorables are firing sniper rifles, cutting throats, tossing people out of airplanes, and blowing stuff up.

These depredations are not usually directed at him personally, but—like a Japanese rōnin, a medieval knight-errant, or a pale-rider cowboy gunslinger—he inevitably gets involved. When the corpses are stacked high enough, Reacher moves on, usually leaving a tearful local girl behind. He's the Shane of our time

Not everybody will like Reacher. He's an acquired taste, although with 100 million books in print and a billion dollars in sales, clearly it's not a difficult acquisition. What's for sure is that if you like the Reacher books, you'll like the Reacher TV show. The blend that marks the books—of brute force and dry wit, of rootlessness and personal loyalty, of animal savagery and human decency—is present and accounted for. As Reacher tells a cop who accuses him of murder: "I didn't kill anybody. At least not recently. And not in this town."

Prime's Reacher is a reasonably faithful adaptation of 1997's Killing Floor, the first of the novels. The fidelity to the books is apparent from literally the first frame of the show, when Reacher climbs off a bus in the middle-of-nowhere Margrave, Georgia, and you can see he's played by Alan Ritchson (Smallville). Ritchson, unlike Tom Cruise, the star of two Reacher films, is a reasonable facsimile of the 6-foot-5, 250-pound literary version of the character. "I look like an ox," Ritchson, not inaccurately, described himself to a reporter who visited the set.

You'd think even the most lunkhead redneck would think long and hard before tangling with an ox-man, but as his mom observed, that's not the cosmology of Reacher World. He hasn't even finished a piece of diner pie (much less his coffee) when he's arrested for the murder of a stranger, an obvious frame-up since the killing took place hours before he got off the bus. There are absolutely no clues linking Reacher to the killing—in fact, no clues about who the victim even is. There's no identification on the corpse, just a single phone number written on a scrap of paper. Reacher, for his part, is visiting Margrave because he's heard that one of the obscure old blues artists he admires is buried there.

Reacher, who spent two decades as a military cop before retiring, is relatively patient with what he first thinks is a mistake by some boneheaded rural cops, and writer-producer Nick Santora (ScorpionPrison Break) wisely allows some time for his character's anger to unspool before unleashing any fists or bullets: It's 27 minutes into the first episode before a bone gets broken. The second, third, fourth and fifth follow much more quickly.

Reacher, in fact, works much better as a TV series (it's eight episodes) than as a film. Despite their frequent and extreme violence, the novels are not mindless excursions into Walking Tall-type ass-kickery. They're all intricately plotted, and Reacher's detective talents exceed his skull-crushing skills. Santora has turned Reacher's internal monologues on clue detection and investigative work into terse conversations with cops, which avoids the lonnnng silences that might have resulted from a more literal adaption of the book. (I've long suspected that author Lee Child keeps the sentence "Reacher said nothing" on a save string on his word processor.)

Santora has also carefully preserved many of the quirks that emphasize Reacher's itinerant disaffection from the real world. He's a sort of hobo, randomly crisscrossing America on buses or hitching rides. His only luggage is a fold-up toothbrush stowed in a shirt pocket; he wears his clothes until they're irredeemable, then buys a new set at a thrift store and tosses the old ones. He doesn't carry a cell phone or a credit card, just picks up cash from his military pension wired by Western Union. Most of his family is dead, and he's rarely in touch with the rest.

The script does make one other concession to comprehensibility, revealing why Reacher is so resistant to even the most tepid form of regimentation. "I grew up in the military, worked in the military," he explains to one of the cops. "I was always told where to go and when to be there. I want to see my country on my own terms." That information can be gleaned from the novels, but sparingly; you'd have to read five or six of them to learn what's contained in those three sentences.

Ritchson gives an intriguing turn as Reacher, avoiding what must have been a terrible temptation do a reactionary Clint Eastwood imitation. Ritchson's Reacher is not, as a rule, hostile, just indifferent; lost in a world tightly linked to his past, but largely indecipherable to us. When a cop rejects his story about visiting the grave of an old blues shouter and yells "What the hell are you doing in my town?" Reacher replies with an air of genuine bewilderment; who wouldn't jump on a bus and travel 500 miles to see a tombstone that might not even be there? Well, maybe, Tom Cruise.