Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

The Jack Reacher books are compulsive, awesome nonsense with a brilliant central character, and as much as I (at first) didn’t understand Tom Cruise’s casting, Jack Reacher was a great film. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is unfortunately nowhere near as good, lacking in plot and action, though Cruise has become a pretty great Reacher.

Jack Reacher, a drifter who used to be in the US army, helps out Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) with an arrest, and over the phone he decides he’ll travel to Washington to meet her for a drink. On arriving there, he discovers she’s been arrested, and soon finds himself under arrest despite having left the army. Reacher works to figure out what’s going on, and amid the subterfuge, gunfights and conspiracies he’s forced to confront the possibility that he may have a daughter, Samantha (Danika Yarosh).

Best to start with the books here – I love them, I plough through each one, and I know they’re trashy, but I don’t care. Never Go Back is one of the more recent stories, and a curious choice for a movie because we’ve had one film to get to know Reacher, where as the book is the eighteenth in a series. Hence the child subplot having way more impact on the page than on screen – this is something that weighs this particular film down, through no fault of anyone’s bar the filmmakers’ choice of novel to adapt. Director Edward Zwick, taking over from Christopher McQuarrie, tries his best with the material and Cruise to make something equivalent to the 2012 original, but a lower-key cast and muddied plot make it feel flimsy.

What I mean by this is that the original introduced the character with no fuss, had a strong central mystery (a sniper kills random people, then asks for Reacher on being arrested) and some great actors (eccentric German director Werner Herzog as the villain, Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall…). This new movie has Cruise, Smulders, and one of those “I’ve seen that guy somewhere” actors surrounded by unknowns. This usually wouldn’t matter, but the characters are poorly sketched, with pantomime-level villains offering little threat, and nobody is served well by the messy script (three writers – Edward Zwick, Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz – a clear sign of rewrites).jack_reacher_never_go_back_poster

The action is at times good, particularly when combining Reacher’s amazing aptitude in fights and Bourne-like use of everyday objects, but the editing makes so much of it jerky and incomprehensible that I was largely disappointed. The same can be said of the music and lighting, which are respectively mundane and bland, while some scenes are so obviously filmed in front of a green screen you wonder how much was reshot. Child’s original story wasn’t one of his best, but the underlying conspiracy definitely isn’t much cop onscreen when its orchestrator has about two scenes to be menacing, while the main antagonist basically smart-talks everyone and is in no way threatening until the last stages.

I said a lot of this was down to the acting – but this doesn’t include Cruise. If you combined the two movies (and Cruise’s quite different performances), you’d have one great cinematic Jack Reacher, because in the original film he’s almost too chatty, but far more akin to the book’s Reacher in how he handles conflict. Here however, Cruise embodies the stoic, silent and often sardonic side of Reacher – almost impassive in most scenes – and the actor, who’s often in talkier roles like the Mission: Impossible series, gets a chance to use his distinctive face in another way. In particular, his reactions to and interactions with Samantha – who may or may not be his child – are restrained yet bubbling underneath, one of the final scenes particularly showing the star’s versatility. If more films are made, I’m glad that Cruise is making Reacher his own – even if my image of the character will always be a seven-foot, shaven-headed brick shithouse.

Smulders takes a rare dramatic role as Turner, and while on the outset her relationship with Reacher is aimed towards romantic, it’s interestingly much more of a buddy-cop partnership, her stern demeanour (best seen in the Marvel movies as Samuel L. Jackson’s number two) seeing her lock horns with Reacher as well as give the film some of its (admittedly weak) humour. Danika Yarosh is quite good as Samantha, Reacher’s possible daughter, and I quite liked the young actress in her scenes with Cruise, though again her character’s often annoying actions and sloppy scenes are entirely to blame on the script. The same goes for most of the cast, with Patrick Heusinger’s ‘The Hunter’ a naff villain prone to being chatty but not being engaging, a halfway-house of blame for this between the actor’s lesser abilities and the script’s need to make him some sort of inscrutable badass without any defining attributes.

This extends to the lead bad guy, Robert Knepper’s General James Harkness, sketched out as said inscrutable badass but given about three minutes to have an impact, and thus not making one. Holt McCallany (he of the “I’ve seen that guy somewhere”) is a Colonel with an axe to grind against Reacher, and has barely anything to do except glower, while Aldis Hodge’s Captain Anthony Espin at least offers different conflict as the unsure military policeman after Reacher and Turner. Again though, an early hint at prior friction between him and Reacher is set aside, and a potentially interesting character path is turned into another mundane, “I don’t trust you til the plot demands it” journey.

If you like the books, or enjoyed the first film, I’d still recommend Never Go Back, but don’t expect much – newbies are best off watching Jack Reacher or reading the books.

 

 

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