Christopher McQuarrie has been trusted for quality ever since his screenwriting debut with The Usual Suspects. It’s an intriguing movie, not only because of the twist we all know, but it’s made even more interesting by the fact McQuarrie knew next to nothing about the 101 rules of screenwriting. It was unconventional, surprising, and entertaining. Most of those adjectives don’t apply to his adaptation of Lee Child‘s character Jack Reacher, but “entertaining” surely does.
The lack of surprise becomes apparent from scene one in McQuarrie’s film. It is a mystery story that we already know the answer for, at least a part of it. The first act comes down to James Barr’s (Joseph Sikora), a former Army sniper, involvement in a horrific shooting. We know most of that answer in frame one, and that’s a smart choice on McQuarrie’s part. Based on conventions alone, we already know whether Barr is innocent or not, so McQuarrie doesn’t try to string the audience along for that meaningless mystery, telling us flat out from the start if he did it or not.
Jack Reacher, played by a stoic yet charming Tom Cruise, isn’t dealing with something, as a lame antagonist would say, “bigger than him.” In this story, there is no protagonist and nothing is bigger than Reacher. There is never a doubt over Reacher outsmarting his opponents, and Cruise makes it believable. The conspiracy he’s thrown into is fairly simple, so the odds of this loner, not hero, as Reacher puts it, not figuring it all out is doubtful.
When we see Reacher walk a crime scene, we get the sense there isn’t something he’s analyzing over and over in his head. Everything is a piece of evidence for him. Jack Reacher is famed for many attributes, from his striking appearance to his brute force strength, and Cruise gets the spirit of all of those character traits. He may not have the height or build of a 6’5″ mammoth, but he has the intimidation and power of one. When a few goons approach him, we know it isn’t going to end well for those lackies. Best of all, after beating those men to hell, he isn’t afraid to crack a joke about it.
It’s difficult to find a villain to match that presence, but McQuarrie made an inspired choice in that department. Werner Herzog, playing somewhat of a villainous middle-man, is pure magic in this movie. Even if an audience is unfamiliar with his work and, far more importantly, his mannerisms, they’ll eat him up. After Herzog was cast, McQuarrie must have rewritten “The Zec” imagining what kind of wonders Herzog would achieve with each threat, piece of exposition, and, best of all, his origin story. “The Zec” doesn’t do much in terms of plot, but with Herzog playing him, all he has to do is show up and say things the way Werner Herzog says things to make him memorable.
It’s a big performance in a fairly restrained movie, in terms of scope. Jack Reacher isn’t driven by set-pieces. Similarly to McQuarrie’s fantastic first film, The Way of the Gun, it’s all about attitude. With Cruise, Herzog, and the talent working behind the camera, that muscular approach is achieved in spades. All the action is as clean cut as they come. McQuarrie and his DP Caleb Deschanel keep the camera steady, never cutting too quickly and rarely ever shaking the camera. Every punch, gun shot, and a terrifically sloppy car chase is felt and seen perfectly.
Admittedly, it takes sometime to get to those fine popcorn moments. When we first do, it’s a tad rocky as well. The movie starts off dead serious, so when the tone becomes more playful, like a violent Three Stooges-esque bathroom fight, it’s jarring. It’s not until midway through the second act does Jack Reacher comfortably become a well-rounded actioner.
That’s not to say the movie only succeeds there, though. As mentioned, Cruise and Herzog turn in large performances, and McQuarrie’s dialog matches it. The rapport between Jack Reacher and Barr’s lawyer, Helen (Rosamund Pike), can be as exciting as Reacher punching a thug in the crotch. There isn’t a great deal of action in Jack Reacher, and that’s rarely felt in the film’s smooth 2 hour running time.
The Upside: Cruise should win over the skeptical Jack Reacher fans, while also giving Reacher new fans as well; McQuarrie makes a satisfying followup to The Way of the Gun; Herzog at his most Herzoginess; Robert Duvall’s appearance, whose role I won’t spoil; McQuarrie refreshingly lets his hero drive the story, not his villain; leaves the door open for future installments without being smug about it; little structural fat.
The Downside: The only fat comes from a good chunk of exposition; early tonal issues; needs more Herzoginess.
On The Side: Tom Cruise isn’t 6’5″.