It happens to everyone – we get old and our appeal fades. We see the power we once had exercised by a new generation, and our movies start grossing less and less at the box office. It’s inevitable … but sometimes the natural decline is pushed harder down the slope by our own choices. Case in point, Tom Cruise’s newest movie Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.
While I have no attachment to creators, there are some whose work I enjoy, and look forward to. David Fincher, David Lynch, Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) – three directors I will make a point of watching. On the acting side, Tom Cruise’s movies have been perennial must-sees for me. He’s put in a few great performances over the years, but in the last 15 years or so he’s mostly settled into playing the same character – kind of like Bruce Willis, and a few others you could think of. I don’t have a problem with that, because I like his movies. Even as recently as Edge of Tomorrow, I thought Cruise was still up to making engaging movies. And then I watched this newest Jack Reacher movie.
I remember the negative buzz over Cruise’s casting for the first movie in 2012, the eponymously titled Jack Reacher – but having never read the books, by British author Lee Childs, the casting meant nothing to me. The movie itself I thought was pretty decent, though I found it hard to swallow the way the movie took as many opportunities as it could to reinforce how much of an ass-kicker Reacher was. I mean, it’s Tom Cruise here, not Vin Diesel. As much as I liked the movie, I felt it was trying too hard to tell me how bad ass Reacher was. Diesel would have been a better choice in many respects, but I’d have had a hard time buying him as a smart army major – he’s been in too many movies where he comes off as being lowbrow. Still, I can’t buy Tom Cruise as a Bourne-type either. Like I said, though, I enjoyed the first one well enough – some of that was down to Werner Herzog’s role as the movie’s villain, but I liked Cruise in it too.
For those of you who haven’t seen either Reacher movies or read the books, the character is kind of like a one-man A-Team. Formerly a major in the US Army Military Police, Reacher now travels around the country like a nomad, involving himself in situations where a terrible wrong needs to be righted. It’s a little nonsensical and is more a setup for a TV character than a movie franchise, but okay. The phoniness of Cruise in the role is apparent from the get go – he doesn’t look like a drifter at all, and that’s a big problem for me. When the main character is the least credible of the production, everything else around him needs to step up a gear. I feel that’s what happened in the first Reacher movie, but not in the latest.
I remember seeing that Ed Zwick was signed to direct this, and while Zwick is a competent director, this always seemed like a bad fit for him. While he worked with Cruise before on The Last Samurai, an action-hero movie like the Reacher series is not on his resume, and this is proven by the eventual product. From start to finish, it’s a lifeless, turgid piece of cinema, and Zwick’s pedestrian directorial style (reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s) is not helped by the story or the screenplay. There are three names attached to this movie (Zwick’s is one, the others are Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz) and as is the case when multiple writers are credited, the result is an overplotted mess of a movie.
For most of the movie I was confused – not about what was happening, but why it was important enough to write a movie about it. The central plot itself is unfocused. Reacher gets involved in helping out Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) when she’s been arrested on a shady espionage charge. Then immediately, he’s drawn into a subplot featuring a 15 year old, Samantha, who may or may not be his daughter, who exists solely to be put in danger. In the book it might have been done better, but cinematically it doesn’t fly. There are a couple of scenes where Reacher, Turner, and Samantha have a few scenes in which a pseudo family dynamic is created, but if there was a specific reason for this it’s beyond me. I wasn’t sure if they were meant to be funny (they’re not), or simultaneously draw out hidden character traits in all three (they don’t). The scenes are necessary in this plot, I get that, but the entire plot is woeful.
Here’s a good reason – the main plot is badly underdeveloped, to the point where the end of it is such a spectacular anti-climax it made me wonder what the hell they were thinking spending $60 million on it. The movie has cars chasing cars, but calling them “car chases” would be charitable. It has hand to hand combat fight scenes that are completely subpar when put up against the likes of the Bourne and Captain America franchises. Where Werner Herzog was a terrifically malevolent villain, Robert Knepper’s villain is one of the weakest I’ve ever seen – not because of the actor. He’s the guy pulling all the strings, but he is defeated in a scene that fizzles like a damp squib. And the lead up to this scene is the only kind of ticking-clock device used in the entire movie, but the clock itself doesn’t start ticking until maybe five minutes before the scene ends. That clock might be ticking, but it’s a big, ponderous grandfather clock. The active villain of the piece is a nondescript assassin type played as anonymously here by Patrick Heusinger as Jai Courtney did in the first Reacher movie – the only difference being that Herzog was the Final Boss in every scene he was in. Knepper, in contrast, does nothing of any importance whatsoever. He’s confined to being in the background of all his scenes until his final scene, where his defeats feels like an administrative function.
It’s indicative of the entire movie: there feels like no sense of urgency in it whatsoever. Structurally, the story is weak. There’s very little dramatic value during Act 2, which focuses mostly on Reacher and Turner “protecting” Samantha – but the movies shows us a trip to a girls school that fails within five minutes, then a trip to a hotel that lasts longer. It’s painful to have to watch this kind of writing.
And it almost seems like Cruise knows it. For the first time ever, he seems like age has finally caught up to him. His face looks puffy and blotchy, when he takes his shirt off, it’s the body of a middle-aged man underneath it. His fight scenes are embarrassingly weak, and he seems to go through the movie with a tired expression that’s nothing to do with making the character of Reacher “worldly wise”. It’s a dog of a picture, and Cruise has been around the block long enough to know one. But Cruise is not blameless – Zwick, Wenk, and Horskovitz combined to pull off a lazy and dull movie that’s light on action and long on underwritten drama, but Cruise produced it, and it was his job to make sure the screenplay was as tight as a bowstring. There’s nothing about this movie that convinces me that anyone was trying too hard, and it shows.