By Carl Kozlowski
As the old saying goes, timing is everything. That could apply to good luck or bad, but in the case of Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise’s new attempt at an action film franchise, it’s a definite risk.
Opening just one week after the Newtown school massacre, Reacher begins with a sniper taking deadly shots at five seemingly random people walking in Pittsburgh. A businessman gets hit, then a businesswoman goes down, then a mother, then a nanny holding a child.
After causing the bloody commotion, the sniper makes a break for it, leaving a panic-stricken city behind. While this kind of incident has been seen in countless movies throughout the past century, in this one, at this time, it seems almost like a sick documentary of the tragedy in Connecticut.
The fact that this is just the opening incident of the film, and that it is handled in non-graphic PG-13 fashion, doesn’t lessen the emotional pain it causes. As mentioned last week, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is pretty violent, and it goes way over the top in its climactic half-hour. But the fact that it’s set in the 1800s Wild West mitigates the question of whether its graphic killings need to be held accountable for inspiring real-world violence.
In Reacher, however, we witness people being picked off like flies in a present-day American city and are then expected to slide into a traditional revenge mystery-thriller. As the film’s top producer, as well as its star, Cruise wisely chose to cancel the film’s premiere festivities in Pittsburgh last Saturday. Unfortunately, it would be virtually impossible for the actual movie to be postponed to a more distant time.
So it’ll be interesting to see how audiences respond to Reacher, which, on its own terms, has some impressive action scenes and some absolutely hilarious dialogue. The film stars Cruise as the title character, a military investigator who has lived off the grid ever since he retired two years before.
Reacher enters the picture after the suspected sniper, an Iraq War veteran who was trained in specialized shooting, is caught by police in surprisingly quick fashion and, instead of writing a confession, writes “Get Jack Reacher.” Reacher suddenly appears, only to find that the suspect has been beaten into a coma and can’t explain himself anymore.
Thus begins a mystery in which Cruise and the shooter’s defense lawyer—who happens to be the district attorney’s daughter—team up to figure out deep details on the seemingly random victims. The effort pays off when they figure out that four out of the five dead were merely diversions from the real intended victim. This leads to a series of well-paced and intriguing revelations that unravel what should feel like a major conspiracy.
The biggest artistic problem with Jack Reacher is that the final revelation of the conspiracy is pretty ho-hum, akin to James Bond learning the villainous Blofeld was out to destroy 7-Eleven stores, instead of the whole planet. The scenes set among the bad guys all look and feel generic as well, taking place in dark alleys and abandoned buildings, with fearful deference to a mysterious crime lord. The final showdown between Reacher and the bad guys feels utterly by-the-numbers.
It’s clear that Cruise was hoping for a grittier, down-to-earth take on action films after his supremely entertaining but physically taxing Mission: Impossible series, and it is fun to see his character keep himself mysterious and inventive in his insistence on kicking ass without needing guns most of the time. Most of the time it works, such as when he takes out two thugs by knocking them to the floor and then slamming their skulls into each other in a move that’s one half-step removed from something the Three Stooges would do.
There’s also a fantastic car chase that gives the legendary Bullitt a run for its money, and the mystery is genuinely involving until the last showdown. Unfortunately, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects, runs out of gas in adapting Lee Child’s bestseller One Shot here. But once word gets out about the film’s opening scenes and the occasional flashbacks to the shootings, audiences may not be too inclined to see the film fall apart anyway.