In terms of storytelling, Jack Reacher can best be described as a hardboiled pot-boiler. If the elements of my gratuitous alliteration strike you as old-fashioned, then I’ve done my job. With filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez having spent the last twenty years bombarding us with tributes to sixties and seventies exploitation, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the next generation of pulp auteurs tapped into the mainstream excesses of the two decades that followed.
Based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child, Jack Reacher draws from both the exorbitant action blockbusters of the eighties and the formulaic procedurals of the nineties. Don’t let the adverts fool you. This movie doesn’t tell the tale of a badass vigilante using his mad special ops skills to dispense raw justice. Rather, it consists of a focused procedural à la John Grisham that happens to star a badass vigilante using his mad special ops skills to dispense raw justice.
The story opens with a chilling sequence in which a lone sniper (Jai Courtney) takes out five seemingly random pedestrians. We then quick-cut through the hasty police investigation that leads to the arrest of James Barr (Joseph Sikora), who, before falling into a coma, asks for our titular hero, an ex military cop who’s gone off-grid and says things like, “You think I’m a hero? I’m not a hero, and if you’re smart, that scares you because I have nothing to lose!” Teaming up with fetching defense attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike), Reacher uncovers a criminal conspiracy that culminates in a Lethal Weapon (1987) style shootout wherein the good guys have inexplicably better aim than the expert marksman at the beginning of the movie.
It’s worth noting that intrigue, not action, drives the plot of Jack Reacher, and I appreciate the way writer-director Christopher McQuarrie uses old-school narrative devices and genuine character beats to hide clues throughout the narrative. Take, for example, the scene in which Helen describes the day of the shooting from each victim’s perspective, how it emphasises both the severity of the crime and our heroes’ ambivalence in questioning the solution to its mystery all the while dropping a truckload of exposition to boot.
Having mentioned that, Jack Reacher derives most of its momentum from its gloriously over-the-top title character and Tom Cruise’s staunch refusal to even hint at the humour inherent to portraying an overly awesome action hero in a story that doesn’t require one. Reacher is written with a surplus of sardonic wit, and his every retort feels like a one-liner worthy of an Elmore Leonard bestseller. As such, a lesser actor might have been tempted to wink at the camera while predicting the exact outcome of a five-against-one bar fight or driving a muscle car backwards on the highway, but not Cruise, who, even when gratuitously showing off his fifty-year-old abs, seems mostly annoyed that Helen would object to his saving time by washing his only shirt while debriefing her.
Yes, I realise the dark-haired, perfect-teethed, five-foot-seven Hollywood star looks nothing like the blond behemoth described in the novel. As Child puts it though, “Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way.” In fact, the latter exceeds at playing larger-than-life characters, and anyone doubting his intensity needs only to see him hang up on the same baddie three times in a row with enough drive to make us forget the unlikelihood of his finding a pay phone everywhere he goes. If you ask me, the man’s casting proves as inspired as that of Werner Herzog as a Bond villain who likes to make people eat their own fingers.
Some of you may be wondering how Jack Reacher gets away with all this nonsense. It’s simple, really: McQuarrie never lets on that he finds the whole thing terribly silly, depicting every twisted revelation and shocking reversal in a sober, understated manner. As a result, the few irrefutable bursts of absurdity come across like well-constructed, perfectly timed punch lines. Consider the hilarious set piece in which two towering henchmen try to knock out our hero in a cramped bathroom but end up repeatedly hitting each other instead. I mentioned the next generation of pulp auteurs tapping into the excesses of the eighties and nineties. I don’t think they’re paying tribute to them, though, so much as taking the piss.