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Jack Reacher Review

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by Casimir Harlow Apr 22, 2013

  • Movies review


    Jack Reacher Review

    A suitably smart, undeniably witty and frequently tense thriller, Jack Reacher, the Christopher 'Way of the Gun' McQuarrie-directed adaptation of bestselling author Lee Child's novel One Shot, largely eschews Big Screen chaos and unnecessary effects in favour of stripped-down, back-to-basics action, and old school plotting, and comes out all the better for it.

    Indeed even die-hard Lee Child fans should reconsider their protests because, between Cruise's earnest 110% commitment and innate charisma, McQuarrie's adept sophomore directorial work and skilful action handling, and Child's irrepressibly punchy dialogue and whip-smart movie-friendly plotting, Jack Reacher makes for a thoroughly engaging little thriller which manages to both do justice to the source material whilst also giving the titular character (star of 16 novels and counting) a good shot at becoming the focus of a promising new film franchise. Bring it.

    The majority of this review remains faithful to my cinema review of Jack Reacher – here – hopefully this time round it’ll persuade those who didn’t get around to seeing it at the cinemas to give it a shot on Blu-ray.

    After five people are killed – seemingly at random – by a sniper, the police arrest ex-Army sharpshooter James Barr and put together a watertight case against him. Facing the death sentence or, at best, life in prison, Barr makes but one request: Get Jack Reacher.

    “Jack Reacher is a ghost. Ex-military: Iraq, Afghanistan, you name it; Silver Star and a Purple Heart; served in the military police: a by-all-accounts brilliant investigator; troublemaker too. Then, two years ago, he disappears. You don’t find this guy unless he wants to be found.”

    When Reacher walks into town, he initially sees this as an open-and-shut case – he knows Barr is guilty, and doesn’t care whether or not he’s guilty of this particular crime. Justice has been served, he thinks. Looking to leave town and drift along until he finds his next lot of trouble, minute details in the case pique Reacher’s interest and draw him back in. And a lynch-mob of hired thugs ensures that he stays there until the job is done. After all, Jack Reacher is a man with a rule: “People leave me alone, I leave them alone. If they don’t, I don’t.”

    Lee Child created the character of Jack Reacher some 15 years ago, and the ensuing 17 novels were all bestsellers. Although the majority of the books were written in the 3rd person, Reacher was introduced to the world with the 1st person novel Killing Floor, allowing us to get into the mind of this ex-military-investigator as he strolled into a small town and right into the middle of a mystery, immediately accused of a murder that he didn’t commit and, more importantly, couldn’t have committed.

    Within a few short pages, the punchy minimalist dialogue and snapshot, bullet-point thought-processing showed us the calculated, streamlined and meticulous methodology of this loner: he prided himself on thinking out scenarios beforehand – from physical confrontations to tactical assaults, from interrogations to investigations. We also learned that Reacher was a man with his own particular moral compass; he lived off the radar and outside of the normal constraints of society and so, when facing an opponent who was clearly and unequivocally guilty, he generally meted out his own brand of justice, having little faith in the authorities doing the same.

    What got him involved in cases? Normally curiosity, frequently happenstance, but occasionally also because he smelled something rotten. He doesn’t feel an innate need to protect the little people, he just has a desperate desire to put the big fish in their place, and see them taken down a notch or two. So if the whole world was against you, then Jack Reacher may well get your back just to see if he can take on the whole world and win.

    “Does Sandy work here?”
    “Who are you, a cop?”
    “Good, so she does work here. Can I speak to her?”
    “I’m going to need some I.D.”
    “Go get Sandy.”
    “Well I need to see something.”
    “How about the inside of an ambulance?!”

    The Reacher novels hooked me a few years back – over a decade into their bestselling success, but before there were even any rumours about a film adaptation in the works – and the first thing that grabs you about the stories (apart from the fantastic lead character) is the cinematic style to them. They feel perfectly designed to be adapted into films, and it got me thinking: why hasn’t this happened yet?

    When reports started coming in about Tom Cruise being interested in the role of Reacher, fans of Lee Child’s creation were almost unanimous in their uproar: how could this A-list actor – whose own star had been uncertain somewhat of late after a series of poorly-received productions (basically everything since M:i-3, including the surprisingly fun but still fairly frivolous Knight and Day) and a fair amount of public controversy (jumping the couch) – of comparatively diminutive stature, and with relatively little experience playing tough anti-heroes, possibly hope to bring the 6ft 5”, size 50 chest Jack Reacher to life on the Big Screen?

    Well I count myself as an ardent fan of the novels – and thus the character – but I’ve never regarded his stature as being particularly important. That probably comes as sacrilege to some fans, but they appear to forget the fact that Reacher is far more than just a huge rock of a man who brawls his way through trouble, he’s a thinking man’s action hero, calculating his every move in fights; using strategy to get out of tough situations, and defeating his enemies in his mind often before he even has to raise a fist. Had they cast Arnie in the part he may have physically resembled Child’s description of the character, but I likely would not have bought the methodology behind his actions; the thought-process that cuts to the heart of what makes him such an interesting hero.

    “It’s five against one.”
    “It’s three against one.”
    “How do you figure?”
    “Once I take out the leader, which is you, I’ll have to contend with one or two enthusiastic wingmen. The last two guys, they always run.”

    No, what Cruise lacked in stature he more than made up for in experience at playing more complex roles – Collateral alone was evidence of that, but everything from Minority Report to The Last Samurai, Interview with the Vampire to Born on the Fourth of July showed shades of the kind of depth that, more often than not, made you forget it was Cruise in the role, and made you believe in the character instead.

    Perhaps more importantly though, what Cruise meant for this project was that the literary character of Jack Reacher was actually going to be given a solid shot at Big Screen glory. How many times have we seen great characters – stars of numerous books – fail to quite make the transition to the Big Screen? Look how many different actors have played Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October; Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears; and now Chris Pine in Jack Ryan); or the floptastic Matthew McConaughey action-adventure, Sahara, which killed Clive Cussler’s character Dirk Pitt (star of some 21 novels and counting) dead in the waters. Even during a relative lull, Cruise was still a massive Box Office draw, and, after the monumental, unprecedented success of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the honest truth was, if Cruise couldn’t kick-start a Jack Reacher film franchise, nobody could. He was the best shot at bringing this character to life. Which is exactly what he did.

    When Christopher McQuarrie signed up to direct, things began to get even more interesting. At least for some. McQuarrie is probably best known for being the writer behind The Usual Suspects, but he also wrote Cruise’s 2008 war piece Valkyrie. Indeed, his debut directorial effort – The Way of the Gun – is probably one of the least well-known, most underrated crime gems of all-time, and one of my favourite films; a Benicio Del Toro / Ryan Phillippe-starring thriller brimming with memorable classic-Western-style action set-pieces and the kind of snappy, quotable dialogue that would make David Mamet proud. If he could bring even a hint of the magic present in either of those two films across to Jack Reacher, then this project was in good hands.

    “Hey! Outside!”
    “Pay your cheque first.”
    “I’ll pay later.”
    “You won’t be able to.”

    With Cruise’s success on Ghost Protocol, Jack Reacher was fast-tracked for release around the same time in 2012 – i.e. just before Christmas – and displaced Brad Pitt’s zombie actioner, World War Z, which was pushed back until 2013 (amidst rumours of reshoots as well). Yet the up-and-down roller-coaster-ride of anticipation certainly hit an all-time low with the release of the teaser trailer, a short skit which appeared to reduce Reacher’s debut to little more than a noisy car chase and a showy street-fight – neither of which were at all in-line with what fans hoped for from an adaptation of these books. Indeed even the novel’s superior title, One Shot, was dropped in favour of, simply, Jack Reacher. Thankfully a second, longer, Theatrical Trailer gave us a better hint at what this film was going to be like – smart, brimming with punchy action, witty dialogue and a committed performance from Cruise. And that’s pretty-much exactly what we got.

    Taking us back to a time when thrillers did not need to be frenetically-paced, feverishly-edited, sensory-blasts of camcorder-wild action, Jack Reacher slows things right down, delivering classic old school notes in everything from the opening piece of scoring to the very font used over the credits. That’s not to say that it’s slow – no, indeed, given the fact that Child’s original book took about 25 pages just to describe the events that unfurl over the opening credits here (the setup and sniper attack), it’s clear that McQuarrie was attempting to strike a fine balance between packed-in-narrative and methodical plotting. For the most part he gets it just right.

    One of the slight concerns attached to the project – in part as a result of the trailers – was over the humour. Was it really going to work? Well, within the context of the movie itself, McQuarrie manages to strike just the right balance there too, infusing the perfect amount of humour into the mix, whilst maintaining a serious, often menacing and frequently downright brutal tone which gives the feature a fairly unforgiving, distinctly adult feel. Somehow he manages to elicit a smile, a chuckle, even the occasional laugh-out-loud, without ever crossing the line into pulling you out of the movie; or taking it any less seriously.

    Just such a moment comes when Tom Cruise walks through the door into the offices of the investigating cop and District Attorney involved with the case, introducing the world to Jack Reacher. It manages to at once pull in a laugh – because the two of them have just been talking about how difficult it is to find Reacher – whilst also giving us direct insight into Reacher himself. No nonsense, no bullsh*t, cutting right to the heart of things; right to the core, without wasting any time. Indeed he’s so straight and to-the-point that his opening revelations only add more layers to the mystery, pulling the audience further into the spider’s web.

    “I’m not here to save him. I’m here to bury him.”

    Cruise absolutely nails the role. I wouldn’t have expected any less, but it still comes as a welcome relief. Sure, some blinkered fans of the literary character will simply never accept a sub-6” Reacher, but they’re the ones missing out. Cruise gets every other element just right, and manages to add yet another varied performance to his largely stellar filmography. He’s the perfect age to take up the part – one of the fittest 50-year-olds on the planet, he has beefed himself up physically and is utterly convincing in the action side of things, whilst his more experienced look lends itself well to the role of an ex-military investigator who also happens to be something of an unstoppable force of nature. In the book he describes his best investigation as being a perfect balance of logic, deduction, paperwork, footwork, intuition, and ultimately elimination and that’s just what we get here.

    When it comes to the action – which is keenly peppered across the impressively lengthy runtime at suitable intervals, maintaining the pace and tension whilst never allowing the proceedings to devolve into purely visceral antics – Cruise also brings us a different side which we have never encountered before. Not wholly unlike Matt Damon’s transformation into Jason Bourne, Cruise brings us a veritably tough Reacher whose physical confrontations involve a barrage of brutal, punishing and relentlessly unforgiving blows. Very much in-line with his literary counterpart, Cruise’s Reacher clinically dispatches his opponents before they even get started – elbow- and knee-strikes-to-the-head; bone-breaking locks; head-butts; upper-cuts; and even the occasional eye-gouge, Reacher clearly plays dirty and plays for keeps.

    He’s not superhuman, however, allowing us to easily make the distinction between Reacher and even the modern-day Bournes and Bonds of this world, as Cruise’s protagonist engages in fights that leave him almost as spent as his opponents. Whilst skill and experience are his strongest weapons, luck is also clearly on his side, and – in a rather unusual twist on the typical action hero – he seldom waits for his opponents to throw a blow, often taking the first strike, following another one of his ‘rules’: don’t react, act. It’s a refreshingly down-to-earth form of fighting, stripped of the blisteringly fast near-superhuman traits of some of his contemporaries, and captured with straight-shooting cinematography that is simply the polar opposite of the fast-cut edits we have become used to in a post-Bourne, post-Taken world. Indeed after the blurry, incomprehensible mess that was Taken 2, Jack Reacher is a welcome change in pace and direction, and showcases some of the best-shot fight sequences we’ve seen in quite some time.

    Of course, another key element to the books is the dialogue, and Cruise further distances himself from previous roles with the snappy, bitingly witty lines that he gets to spout. Sure, he’s done outgoing confidence before – his ego often accused of writing cheques his body couldn’t cash – but here he’s not only assured, but also remarkably blunt. It’s surprisingly effective, totally disarming and quite at odds with both the pretty-boy image that the guy cultivated in his early years, and the good-guy image he forged during the middle part of his career. Sure, he’s not quite Vincent from Collateral, but he has that same level of intensity, and he literally doesn’t play by the normal rules of society. He’s got his own rules, and they clearly don’t involve the usual social etiquette.

    “I’m on a budget.”
    “I can’t afford you.”
    “I’m not a hooker!”
    “Oh then I really can’t afford you.”

    The screenplay – also by McQuarrie – brings Lee Child’s character to life as part Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, part Sherlock Holmes (BBC or Downey Jr), and part Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, and Cruise manages this blend well, frequently following Child’s commonplace line – Reacher said nothing – in portraying the character as a distinctly less-is-more entity, who chooses his words carefully, metes them out with utter conviction, and follows them through with committed action. It’s crystal clear that the guy behind the script to The Usual Suspects and The Way of the Gun wrote this piece, often adapting some of Child’s Reacher ‘thoughts’ into snappy dialogue (like the quote about it being a ‘three-on-one fight’) to great effect.

    There’s more than a little of Mel Gibson’s Payback character in here as well (based on the Donald E. Westlake character of Parker, first immortalised by Lee Marvin in Point Blank, and most recently brought to life by Jason Statham in the 2013 movie of the same name, Parker) and, after welcoming Gibson back in the spiritual sequel – one of the most underrated movies of 2012 – How I Spent My Summer Vacation (aka Get the Gringo), it was nice to see more than a little bit of this kind of smart-mouth-tough-guy-with-his-own-moral-code character injected into Jack Reacher. Indeed there was also a hint of pure Punisher in the mix, with Reacher’s inherent sense of justice and Dredd-like attitude towards being jury, jury and executioner – at least in instances where the law fails.

    Whilst Cruise will hopefully carry the character through more than just one adventure – the Box Office returns finally crossing the invisible line that the Studios set before they would greenlight a sequel – he doesn’t have to do it alone, and here they provide him with a solid supporting cast brimming with impressive performances that only let down in one or two areas.

    First the bad: I didn’t buy David Oyelowo’s cop at all. Oyelowo’s probably most famous for his regular role in the BBC MI:5 series, Spooks, and just doesn’t seem old enough to play this part of the veteran lead detective in a multiple homicide. All the criticisms levelled at Cruise for being too short and slight for his role? Well, I thought they were far more relevant when levelled at Oyelowo, who simply didn’t have me believing in his contribution. Of course it didn’t help one bit that his character motivation is never properly explored, nor explained.

    “Somebody dead?”
    “And if someone is?”
    “Then they died of shame, because I was being gentle.”

    He’s the only exception, however, in an otherwise exceptional cast. Rosamund Pike – who was terrible in Brosnan’s jump-the-shark final Bond outing, Die Another Day and a misguided love interest in Wrath of the Titans – makes for a decent leading lady, standing her own opposite Reacher, offering up some palpable chemistry with Cruise, and – apart from one almost comically over-the-top cleavage scene – managing to be elegantly sexy throughout. Although repeat viewings show her as drifting slightly into the direction of over-the-top reactions, her performance is still fairly stable. Richard Jenkins (Killing Them Softly, Cabin in the Woods) has been pulled in for far too many satirical features of late, so there was a risk that he would threaten the seriousness of this thriller, but thankfully we get just the right small dose of him, and he is well chosen as the slick District Attorney who thinks this is just an open-and-shut case.

    Then there’s Werner Herzog, who surprised audiences when the announcement came that he was taking a starring role in this film as the lead villain. Herzog is best known as the director behind such acclaimed features as Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Rescue Dawn, and most recently paired up with Nic Cage for the more mainstream Bad Lieutenant remake, but has rarely acted in features, let alone Big Screen blockbusters like this. Much more of an extended cameo rather than a defining lead villain, Herzog’s enigmatic “The Zec” is a great little choice role which pays tribute to the likes of Polanski’s cameo in Chinatown or Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver. Of course I wish we had more Herzog; more time to see his character motivations and background, but there was just enough here to make him have an impact.

    Jai Courtney makes more of a physical impact as the lead henchman working under The Zec, a tough professional killer who poses a potential match for Cruise’s Reacher. Courtney, recently reasonably capable as Bruce Willis’s screen son in this year’s disappointingly underwhelming A Good Day to Die Hard, is a convincing tough guy, providing more than enough skilled muscle to back up his boss’s Machiavellian brains.

    Perhaps the biggest casting surprise comes in the fact that it’s not, indeed, Herzog who steals the show, but legendary actor Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now), who also pops up in an extended cameo – this time towards the end of the piece – but one which is considerably more memorable. The 81-year-old Duvall, reuniting here with Cruise after being the single best thing about their Top-Gun-on-wheels outing Days of Thunder, still has undeniable screen presence, and is clearly having an absolute blast with his old buddy Cruise. Playing a gun store owner who is something of an ex-military crack shot himself, their time together adds a brilliant extra layer to the piece, as their warm interaction fervently reminds us that this old-guy-who-still-has-teeth could easily represent the future of one Jack Reacher.

    “You’re a little rusty, Mr. Reacher.”

    Director Christopher McQuarrie effortlessly acquits himself in the action department, with five-time-Oscar-winner Caleb Deschanel (The Patriot) providing the cinematography and helping deliver some memorable old school brutality. It’s clear that having a quality director on board makes all the difference though, as Deschanel’s work under a modern day, past-it Friedkin in Killer Joe, was far less satisfying. Here he helps McQuarrie capture every single one of the clutch of memorable fight sequences in all their glory, his longer shots making it that much harder for the movie to avoid slipping into R-rated territory (indeed it teeters right on the brink – I’m surprised it secured a PG-13/12A rating considering the brutality of some of the fights; the often threatening subject-matter “Chew your fingers off!” and the generally serious tone of the piece – and I was none too impressed by the parents who brought their 6 and 7 year old children sitting a row or two forward), but also making for considerably more satisfying action than the kind of fast-cut handheld chaos that is threatening to now get out of control (Taken 2). Of course the movie was actually cut to achieve a 12A rating (when an uncut 15 was readily available) but this is now the uncut 15 film we get on Blu-ray, and it turns out that there are only two additions: a longer, more protracted and sadistic strangulation and a particularly painful second rock-blow to the back of the skull. It’s more than enough to make you wince.

    Similarly McQuarrie effortlessly manages a superb addition to the book’s story – a car chase that Childs never wrote – which perfectly blends real stuntwork (Cruise apparently did all of his own driving stunts, furthering the parallel to Steve McQueen’s epic chase sequence in Bullitt) with, rather unusually, character development. Yes, this scene isn’t just a tense chase, it’s also a perfect example of Reacher’s tactics in action as we find Cruise’s protagonist relentlessly pursuing his target, despite the fact that a whole fleet of police cars are on his tail. It’s a brilliant insight into his character: treating the cops as little more than a pesky nuisance which he can take care of at any stage. In this respect it’s one of the most innovative action sequences in the film, although it’s hard not to love the reversing-Mercedes sequence from the climax, which looked goofy in the trailer but again is pure Reacher when you see it placed in context.

    “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot.”

    This is, however, far more of an old school detective thriller than an outright action thriller. Although it has some excellent action set-pieces, McQuarrie certainly does not skimp on complex plotting, snappy dialogue and satisfying character development. Fans of Child’s original novel, One Shot, will be pleased to find the book almost entirely intact here – from character names and motivations to narrative developments and dialogue – although this does leave an almost excessive runtime that those unfamiliar with the books may be less forgiving towards. Personally, I’d have loved an extra few minutes just to round out the characters and plot a little better towards the end of the feature, but I’m sure that there were plenty wishing it was good 10-15 minutes shorter. Still, either way, the film is a beautiful example of more traditional classic thriller pacing and plotting, and whilst it doesn’t quite have enough punch or lasting impact to make for a modern classic in its own right, it has hopefully set the mould for future, great Cruise/Reacher outings.

    All in all, Jack Reacher had a pretty successful run at the US Box Office – even up against The Hobbit, and even over the Christmas lull period – and, whilst it hasn’t matched the monumental success of 2011’s Cruise Christmas actioner, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the Box Office returns should now guarantee a sequel. Child has already talked about which book he’d like to see adapted next – The Hard Way or Worth Dying For – but, whichever one of the many Jack Reacher tales is brought the Big Screen, you can expect it to be a winner.

    Cruise would be wise to make this his new franchise, and churn out at least 3 movies over the next decade, and, with his upcoming sci-fi movies – including All You Need is Kill – showing great potential and cementing the success of the stunning Oblivion, as well as a planned reunion with McQuarrie for the next Mission: Impossible outing, the future certainly looks pretty great for this versatile superstar who, even at 50 years old, is still the highest paid actor on the planet.

    “I have nothing to lose... and if you’re smart, that scares you.”

    However you feel about the actor, you should give this potential franchise debut a shot – old school plotting; whip-smart dialogue; brutal action and excellent performances, it’s a cracking little detective thriller, introducing the cinematic world to one of the greatest hardboiled characters ever created: Jack Reacher.