The new Tom Cruise thriller “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” inspires two questions. First, what did the likes of Cruise and writer/director Edward Zwick see in this routine action thrill with such been-there-done that characters and situations?
True, this is the second installment of the Jack Reacher franchise Cruise himself launched nearly four years ago so, of course, he must stay the course. Yet once upon a time Cruise took roles in much more interesting, complex stories, winning Oscar noms for films such as ‘Born on the Fourth of July,” “Jerry Maguire” and ‘Magnolia.”
And he has the “Mission: Impossible” series as his go-to A class action-thriller for long enough now that he could easily turn to meatier roles between those rooftop chases and back-alley brawls instead of returning to B class action.
Meanwhile Zwick has tended to seek out mainstream films that nevertheless contain significant thematic material such as the Oscar-winning films “Glory” and “Legends of the Fall” as well as the geopolitical thriller “Blood Diamond.”
(Cruise and Zwick did once team on “The Last Samurai,” admittedly an oddball conception, but one that nevertheless did try to deal with East-West interaction in the 19th century.)
The second question though is how good is the movie?
Well, thanks to the involvement of Tom Cruise and Ed Zwick, it does transcend the limitations of its genre and a by-the-numbers screenplay. Cruise delivers the needed intensity and superstar presence while Zwick humanizes his characters just enough and cuts for maximum suspense and tension.
So the thing plays about as well as, say, the second installment in the Liam Neeson “Taken” franchise.
Jack Reacher, in case you missed the first film called simply “Jack Reacher” or didn’t read any of the 20 novels about him written by former British TV veteran Lee Child, is the anti-James Bond: he’s American, raw and allergic to witticism.
As a heroic figure, he combines the mysterious stranger in town from Westerns with shadowy figures from film noir. Also he works alone and likes it that way.
Only in this film, adapted from the 18th book in the series, Reacher is suddenly saddled with a “family.” The woman is Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders from CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother”), who holds down his old job in military intelligence. However, she’s been railroaded into an arrest for espionage by the movie’s dark forces.
Naturally, Reacher has to break her out of a D.C.-area maximum security prison, making them both fugitives. An interesting twist though adds a blonde teenager named Samantha (Danika Yarosh) to the renegades, who might just be Reacher’s daughter from a 16-year-old relationship.
These developments saddle the loner with not only gender equality issues (via Major Turner) but parenting issues (Samantha), neither of which he is well equipped to handle.
No worries, neither gets pressed to the point of any real significance; these are mere place markers to remind one of the filmmakers’ commitment to serious issues while making an unserious action flick.
The aforementioned dark forces in the movie consist of a group of rogue military types and a Blackwater-like security firm that have far too much sway over U.S. military and intelligence operations than would seem feasible.
I won’t trouble you with the storylines and strategies of the lame tale but suffice to say an assassin in on their tail with malevolent prowess. He is called simply The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger). As a general rule, it’s a good idea to shrug off any thriller where a baddie goes by such a moniker and is then allowed to murder one of his own employers and, worse, to develop an unhealthy obsession.
In this case, that obsession is with destroying young Samantha, who is at best tangential to the plot and a complete distraction from his real mission, which is the destruction of Reacher.
The Obsessed Assassin is highly favored gambit of horror/thriller novelist Dean Koontz. This character is always deeply flawed by his fixation to the point that it thwarts his own true purpose and renders him highly unreliable.
This allows fiction writers, in this case screenwriters Richard Wenk, Zwick and his longtime partner Marshall Herskovitz, to bestow superhuman perspicacity, prescience and strength on The Hunter, yet sow the seed of the Obsessed Assassin own destruction in his single-mindedness.
Everything winds up in New Orleans for little reason other than the French Quarter at Halloween is so colorful and has all these great rooftops for chases and fights to the death.
Cruise brings plenty of energy to the tissue-thin role. Smulders acquits herself well in a role that let’s her go up against Cruise even as they team up to fight off wave after wave of baddies.
Yarosh is good enough that the script shortchanges her — and us — when it sidelines her near the climax and then treats her as a damsel in distress instead of a more integral part of Team Reacher.
So, bottom line, Tom Cruise fans have something to watch while they wait for something of more significance from the actor-producer. But that first question remains unanswered.
Opens: October 21, 2016 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Paramount and Skydance present a Tom Cruise production
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Robert Knepper
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriters: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Based on the book by: Lee Child
Producers: Tom Cruise, Don Granger, Christopher McQuarrie
Executive producers: Paula Wagner, Herb W. Gains, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: Clay Griffith
Music: Henry Jackman
Costume designer: Lisa Lovaas
Editor: Billy Weber
PG-13 rating, 118 minutes