I did see this movie in theatres, but it was a week after release and I didn’t have much ambition to write up a review. Now that it’s out on home video, I can put my thoughts together on this very well made thriller that, yet, still lacks a certain memorable quality. Jack Reacher is based on One Shot by Lee Child, and while the movie does some significant departures from the 6’5″ towering blonde character with the casting of Tom Cruise, on its own merits, there is an enjoyable film to be had here from a very capable director with a fresh style.
In an innocent heartland city, five are shot dead by an expert sniper. The police quickly identify and arrest the culprit, former U.S. Army officer James Barr (Joseph Sikora), and build a dead bang guilty case. Regardless, Barr claims he’s innocent and delivers only one message to the police, “Get Jack Reacher.” A former Army Criminal Investigator, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) sees the news report and turns up in the city, but comes only to condemn Barr based on past history. However, Barr’s attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), pulls Reacher into her investigation in order to get to the truth, but he will only do so if she looks into the lives of victims so to gain an objective, moral view of Barr’s alleged crime. Reacher sets out to confirm for himself the absolute certainty of the man’s guilt, but comes up with more than he bargained for as he uncovers a seedy conspiracy of corruption.
This film is directed by Christopher McQuarrie who also wrote the screenplay. He is most well known as the screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, but this is a distinctly different style and tone of film that I do feel he handles competently and sharply. The film starts with a strong weight of drama as we see the cold, calculating, and brutal sniper killings resulting in a traumatic, jarring impact. How Reacher is pulled into the story reflects perfectly on the character himself – smart, sly, quick-witted, and unpredictable. McQuarrie is able to firmly ground the drama of this story while still offering sharp dialogue with dashes of levity and personality. We do get these clever moments of humor that are somewhat unexpected, but for whatever reason, they are very entertaining and just work surprisingly well. The balance between the serious and humorous are in the right balance. He uses the humor to add levity and entertainment value to the movie while the drama creates the narrative’s momentum. McQuarrie also knows how to solidly plot out a mystery, as The Usual Suspects demonstrated. He lays out all the facts, perceptions, and details in very intelligent ways. It never feels like a dry procedural, but a compelling web that Reacher is intricately and confidently pulling apart one strand at a time.
And it is the Jack Reacher character that makes the investigation so intriguing. How he approaches the evidence, what nags at his mind, how he perceives motive and reasoning create a fascinating deconstruction of this mystery. Tom Cruise embodies these qualities exceptionally well. I also love how he slyly bulldozes his way through a situation. He’s not a guy who suffers anyone, and is determined to get to the truth no matter who’s standing in the way. Yet, he’s not a battering ram. He uses smarts, wit, and bravado more than force which makes him intriguing to watch. Cruise harnesses a hard edged confidence and presence that creates an intense electricity in his performance. Despite his average size and build, Cruise feels formidable from how he carries himself. While the Reacher of the books is meant to be this physically large man sort in the vein of a Dolph Lundgren, I feel that Cruise’s smaller stature works to excellent effect. He’s more unassuming, more average looking. You don’t expect a brutal ass kicking from him, but that’s just what you get. In Cruise’s hands, Reacher is a skilled and intelligent man with a sort of dry yet sharp sense of humor who can assault any enemy with tactical efficiency. This has long been within Cruise’s physical capabilities between his work on Collateral and the Mission: Impossible films, and he has always been an immensely dedicated physical actor. Altogether, I feel Tom Cruise is a stellar, wicked cool fit for this role as written here, and he puts in a solid performance.
Another great performance comes from Rosamund Pike. The script gives Helen Rodin a smart set of conflicts that are both internal and external. Reacher has her get personal with the victims of this sniper attack, and it forces her to realize the impossible nature of her position as the defense attorney. It gets pushed further as the truth is unraveled by Reacher, and it becomes more and more difficult for her to trudge forward with any course of action, yet she still does. Externally, she has her own father as the District Attorney opposing her from continuing on with this case, and there are conflicts with Reacher as they battle back and forth on their ideals and viewpoints on the case. Pike gives us a character that does question herself, and struggles with these moral quandaries that Reacher puts her into. Yet, she is her own person, making her own choices, and showing her strength while still being a vulnerable, compassionate person. Rosamund Pike is purely excellent in this role giving us emotional dimension and assertive strength, and it surely doesn’t hurt that she is exceptionally beautiful to my eyes.
The film’s villain comes from a surprising source – German filmmaker Werner Herzog. He portrays The Zec, a former prisoner of a Russian gulag, now the leader of this gang perpetrating corruption in this city. He’s both a chilling, threatening presence and a darkly enjoyable villain. He’s got this pretty extreme back story of having gnawed his own fingers off to survive his incarceration, and tries to force this average street thug into doing the same to prove his worth to him. It’s a crazy moment in The Zec’s introductory scene that really sets the tone for how tough and ruthless this villain is, and I really liked it. It surely feels a little over the top, but the dead serious weight given to it sells it in entertaining fashion. Herzog certainly has done acting in the past, but it’s certainly a surprise turn in this film that succeeds in spades. And even Jai Courtney is thoroughly impressive as the more action centric villain Charlie who causes trouble for Reacher throughout the movie, and battles with him at the end. He’s got a solid presence that sells a lot of his character without him having to say much. He showcases charisma with just a sly smirk, and just feels like a sharp talent with a lot of potential in him.
And lastly, we get a fun, quirky performance from Robert Duvall as this ex-Marine that runs a gun range and ultimately aids Reacher during the climax. His chemistry with Cruise creates some great levity during the very dark and heavy final act.
On all technical levels, this is a rock solid feature. It is excellently shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The fantastic use of smart angles and purposeful compositions really enhance the intrigue and calculating aspects of the story and characters. In conjunction with the great, conservative editing by Kevin Stitt, we get a very effective thriller with solid scenes of suspense and poignant character moments. With McQuarrie’s very competent and solid talent at the helm, it really forged something that highly impresses in both technical skill and storytelling ability.
While the film has an intricately woven mystery at hand, it never overshadows the worth of the characters because without them the story doesn’t mean as much. I do love that the film does take the time to flesh out who those victims were, what their lives were like, and allows us to connect with them on a brief but strong emotional level. Christopher McQuarrie does the same thing with us that Reacher does with Rodin in this instance – have us connect with those people on a personal level. These are not just faceless victims. These were people with lives and loved ones, and they are not trivialized in this film, which is immensely commendable and really a breath of fresh air. It emotionally motivates both Reacher and Rodin to move forward in their efforts to unravel this plot and expose the truth, and it has purpose in unraveling the mystery.
And indeed, this film features one of the best car chases in recent memory. It has a very tense stare down between Reacher and David Oyelowo’s Detective Emerson after Reacher has just been framed for a murder. That stare down then explodes into this visceral 1970’s throwback car chase. It’s fantastically shot never tightening the frame too much, or shaking it all around with incompetence. We have beautiful compositions all around with an intense visceral quality fueled by the mere rumbling sounds of a muscle car engine, and solidly paced editing. That’s a page taken right out of Bullitt, and I think this chase does follow strongly in that tradition. It was a great happenstance that the Chevy Chevelle actually wouldn’t start during filming creating this great, real moment of it stalling out in the middle of the chase. This is an awesomely hard edged chase that does not overstay its welcome. It’s right to the point delivering a dose of adrenalin in the middle of the film, and the sly, clever ending to that car chase is so right for this character. The film does have very good action scenes, but it’s not proper to call this an action movie. It’s definitely a mystery thriller with solid shots of action. There are some entertaining fight scenes, and a very hard edged, very violent climax.
McQuarrie does choose an interesting tone and approach to the action scenes in that there’s hardly any score that plays through any of them. I saw this approach taken during the anti-climactic shootout in 2006’s Miami Vice, and I didn’t feel it was especially successful. Here, while I was undecided about it after my theatrical viewing, I do now feel it is rather effective for Jack Reacher. The tactical shootout in the quarry starts out with just the sounds of gunfire and some stellar cinematography and editing to make it work. However, when it moves further along, we get some suspenseful music cues, but the action itself remains raw and visceral without any music accompaniment. When Reacher and Charlie finally throw down, it’s just the harsh sounds of bones cracking and rain pouring to sell the hardened violence. The conclusion to this is very telling of the character in regards to his code of justice. It’s not really what you’d expect from an procedural crime thriller, but it is fitting overall. Now, I do feel like the ending lacked maybe a definitive sense of closure or consequence. There aren’t any actual hanging plot threads that I picked up on, but a more solid, stronger ending might have given it that extra added punch to please audiences. Reacher simply departs after all the action is done leaving others to clean up his mess which creates a feeling of an unresolved something. The ending has some poignancy and sly qualities in two separate scenes, and this ending is far from being poor in any aspect. I just think it could’ve used a stronger punctuation for the story and characters.
Ultimately, Jack Reacher is a very well directed, well acted, and overall very solidly made movie. The screenplay is very smart with a unique balance of dramatic weight and humorous levity that oddly works very well. The Reacher character is a very interesting one well embodied by Tom Cruise. He’s not explored in a lot of depth, but we get insights into who he is, what he values, and what his convictions are. How he operates, how he thinks, and what actions he takes tell us all we need to know in this story about Jack Reacher. It’s great seeing that despite Reacher having a predisposition towards Barr’s guilt, he’s able to maintain an objective point of view in his investigation. His own personal feelings against Barr never cloud his judgment. He wants the truth, no matter what that might be. These are sure signs of a very smartly written film and well developed character that is thoroughly understood by both McQuarrie and Cruise, thanks to the novels of Lee Child. Yet, despite of all this, I do feel the film lacks that extra spark that would catch on with audiences. It probably stems from the fact that this is not especially an action film, despite the marketing, and more of an intelligent thriller that doesn’t lend to a rousing, exciting experience. For everything that these filmmakers were striving to achieve, they did so with great success, but I don’t feel there’s a great demand for a franchise based on this outing alone. If the filmmakers can put together a film with more action and excitement, I think it could take off fairly well, but as it is, this film didn’t set audiences on fire with anticipation for another installment. While it’s not impossible, Cruise surely has plenty of other projects he’s quickly developing, including a fifth Mission: Impossible film, that he’s not in a major need to launch another franchise.