by Thom Yee
“Jack Reacher!?” I hear you cry out from across the room, the implication burning more brightly, clearly, and obviously than a thousand exploding suns. “But… Tom Cruise… he’s f*cked up…!”
In my mind, and to the extent that I care, Tom Cruise is a perfect movie star. He’s iconic, he’s been in movies I liked (Mission: Impossibles 1 and 3, War of the Worlds), he’s been in movies that I will never see (The Firm, Valkyrie, Rock of Ages), and, like it or not, he dominates the scenes that he’s in without necessarily chewing up the scenery. I believe that he’s the characters that he’s playing when he’s playing them, whether he’s playing to type (Jerry Maguire) or against (Collateral). I couldn’t care less about anything going on around him when he’s not on screen, Scientology or not, couch hopping or not, having a weird effect on his latest
beard wife or not. I’m here to watch movies. He could be murdering babies in the street and the rational side of my brain would be admitting how overpopulation is a serious issue as I sit in the theatre waiting for Oblivion to start (though that might have more to do with my belief that most aren’t capable of raising proper children).
So yeah, I saw Jack Reacher. With Tom Cruise. And Werner Herzog. And Robert Duvall.
And I’m glad I did.
Jack Reacher is worth watching for one reason: old-school production. The action is controlled. The themes are straightforward. The shots aren’t tricky. And the tension is real. Right from the first scene, as we watch a sniper survey a busy park full of people as he chooses his targets, we get a real sense of the stakes that are involved. It’s a moment that understands that people can sympathize with anything. It builds and builds, and as we watch these people — people just like those we meet in our daily lives, people we’ve gotten to know even without trying — we slowly remember that we’re all connected; we slowly realize that, for all of our jealousy and cynicism, we don’t really want to see anyone get hurt. And then a bunch of people get shot.
What follows is a relatively simple murder mystery as the alleged shooter, James Barr, before being beaten into a coma on his way to lockup, gives up nothing more to his investigators than a message: “Get Jack Reacher.” Which is, I’ll admit, a clichéd way of introducing our hero. But what do you expect? This is, after all, a movie based on a book. And nobody reads books anymore — that’s why you wait for the movie. What I’m not going to tell you is that Jack Reacher is a particularly deep film. It doesn’t toil in the hearts of our own twisted natures, it doesn’t dig into our souls to find the beauty inside. It doesn’t waste time on those things because it remembers what it is: an action movie.
Soon after, Cruise’s Jack Reacher, a former military investigator and current off-the-grid recluse, is introduced in an unusually funny way (that doesn’t break the tone of the film), we find out the specifics of the too-convenient-to-be-true case against Barr from Detective Emerson, lead investigator, and are introduced to the female lead, Helen Rodin, Barr’s defense attorney played by Rosamund Pike. Through the rest of the film, we investigate the clues, we meet the bad guys, and we watch the obstacles as they’re overcome with an accomplished confidence.
There’s a scene at the movie’s mid-point in Helen’s office as the plot lays exposed, and I couldn’t help but feel that Rosamund Pike was almost standing in for Nicole Kidman as she realizes the shape of the case she’s become involved in, Tom Cruise sitting back, already casually aware of everything that’s going on. The two share the same type of chemistry that Cruise and Kidman seemed to in that if both were alone together in the same room, I could imagine either one not immediately excusing themselves to be somewhere else. It’s in this scene that I could feel Jack Reacher acting as a touchstone for Tom Cruise’s entire 20th century career. From Risky Business to Top Gun to Robert Duvall and the days of Cruise’s Cole Trickle (and no, I’m not old enough to have seen Days of Thunder in the theatre, so my recollection is really just a marvel of cognitive alignment), Tom Cruise has consistently been the star of movies that we know are good for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with high-cultured intent.
If there’s one weakness of the movie, it’s that the bad guys are underdeveloped, which isn’t to say they’re poorly portrayed. The always unsettling Werner Herzog gives a great performance as The Zec, the leader of our bad guy corps, and my beloved Jai Courtney’s Charlie is a character that can turn on a dime, at once charming and just as suddenly ruthless in getting his job done. Great portrayals, but we really don’t spend enough time with them to truly get their motivations (or at least get the sense that they are motivated). There is, however, one incredibly tense scene to look out for where the two literally force a man to eat his own fingers.
The obvious solution to underplayed bad guys is having a good guy who’s his own worst enemy, but, for the most part, Jack Reacher’s actually pretty well adjusted. In the scene in Helen’s office, Reacher describes the reasons for his reclusive lifestyle as the two look down at the office workers in the building beside them:
Imagine you’ve spent your whole life in other parts of the world, being told every day you’re defending freedom, and finally decide you’ve had enough. Time to see what you’ve given up your whole life for. Maybe get some of that freedom for yourself. Look at the people, you tell me which ones are free. Free from debt. Anxiety. Stress. Fear. Failure. Indignity. Betrayal. How many wish they were born knowing what they know now? Ask yourself how many would do things the same way all over again and how many would live their lives like me.
Amen to that, person I just met broadly speaking about society as if it were bad. Amen to that.
Having said all of this, the weird thing about Jack Reacher is that it wasn’t sold as what I’ve told you it is. Frankly, I don’t know how possible it is to really sell a movie starring Tom Cruise anymore, and I’m willing to wager that he’s never going to be in another truly dominant box office hit again. But right now I’m going to ask you a favour: watch the trailer. It’s right below. We can pick up after.
Tell me that doesn’t look like a cool movie (except, maybe, for the fact that it stars Tom Cruise). What we got in the trailer was a cool, almost progressive actioner that lives as much on its tone as it did its artifice. What we got instead was an investigative thriller, with stars and moments that stand out as relics from an earlier age of movies. In a good way. Characters who are what they are. Filming that is what it is. Very serviceable, very old school action scenes. A truly great car chase sequence, and a final set piece that’s somewhat clever and fully developed in a world built in reality.
Like a perfect movie star, Jack Reacher is a movie that doesn’t need a lot of explanation or exposition (or maybe that’s just my way of explaining this review’s shorter-than-usual word count). It’s a movie that lives on the surface, sacrificing high-browed complexity for instinctively strong storytelling. Jack Reacher isn’t going to change your life. Jack Reacher isn’t going to break open your ideas of cinéma vérité. Jack Reacher doesn’t care about the law. Jack Reacher doesn’t care about proof. Jack Reacher only cares about what’s right: being a good action movie.
Jack Reacher final score: 8
Screw you, Rock of Ages was awesome.
I didn’t say Rock of Ages was bad, I said, unless some horrible, horrible person forces me to watch it, I will probably never see it.
*insert evil laugh here*