On the surface, Tom Cruise seems like a mismatch for Jack Reacher, the vigilante tough-guy hero from the acclaimed series of novels by British author Lee Child.
Yet the way Cruise plays the role in the film adaptation feels like old hat. The character becomes a mix of the diminutive actor’s prior roles, from the physical prowess of Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible films to the detective instincts of Daniel Kaffee from A Few Good Men.
It’s an intriguing approach to the enigmatic character that nevertheless can’t save a slick thriller that suffers from a muddled and convoluted script, adapted specifically from the book One Shot.
The story takes place in Pittsburgh, where a former military sniper (Jai Courtney) is arrested for the shooting of five strangers in an apparent random act of violence. It appears to be an open-and-shut case until the mysterious Reacher arrives on the scene at the suspect’s request. Reacher shares new evidence with the man’s attorney (Rosamund Pike), who happens to be the daughter of the district attorney (Richard Jenkins), and makes himself a target while trying to expose the truth.
The script by director Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects) serves up some amusing comedy, such as a throwaway scene in which Reacher combats two bumbling adversaries in a crowded bathroom.
He also incorporates the Pittsburgh terrain into some taut action sequences, including a high-speed nocturnal car chase with Reacher in a classic racing-striped Chevelle in which Cruise performs many of the driving stunts himself.
The movie itself also is a vehicle for Cruise, although the supporting cast includes some noteworthy names such as Robert Duvall and venerable filmmaker Werner Herzog.
As the film progresses, it becomes less about finding the identity and motive of the killer and more about figuring out the identity and motive of Reacher himself. That’s one area where the screenplay becomes frustrating – by keeping its hero at a distance and manipulating the audience through the calculated revelation of selected character traits and potential reasons for his involvement in the case.
Reacher is a fascinating character, to be sure, both a virtuous crusader for justice and a cold-blooded killer. Here’s hoping that any future big-screen installments might develop those conflicted sides into something with a darker edge, something of which the elusive Reacher would approve.
Rated PG-13, 130 minutes.