“Jack Reacher” is a throwback action thriller — taut and muscular, gruff and cool. Based on Lee Child’s 2005 novel, “One Shot,” it offers viewers familiar but forgotten action pleasures: directorial competence, a screenplay with just enough wit, an honest-to-goodness movie star and supporting actors who hold their own.
Indeed, in an age when brooding teen heroes dominate the big screen, it’s a movie that’s enjoyable as much for what it’s not as for what it is: cynical but not grim, clever but not ironic, fast-paced but not in your face. It’s not a revelation, but a reminder — sometimes the old formulas work just as well as the new ones.
Make no mistake: This is formula through and through. But it’s particularly well-executed formula, from the swift and shocking crowd shooting that opens the film to a cramped bathroom beat-down that’s probably the funniest bit of action shenanigans I’ve seen all year. The story, about a supposedly open-and-shut case involving a mentally disturbed sniper who goes on a seemingly random killing spree, is predictably unpredictable in its well-timed twists and turns.
But what really makes it work is that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie never lets the familiar elements feel too familiar: He brings a weird, brutal creativity to the movie’s fisticuffs, and gives them an intimacy that too many recent grand-scale action pictures lack. Nor does he rely heavily on computer-generated effects, which gives his larger action scenes a tough, tactile feel: A superbly staged downtown car chase turns into a symphony of rumbling pistons and squealing tires. These are real cars, and real stakes.
At the heart of it all is Tom Cruise as Reacher, the title character and the hero of more than a dozen Lee Child novels. Reacher is a classic thriller-series protagonist: a terse ex-military investigator who lives entirely off the grid; he can’t be tracked, or found, unless he allows it. You don't know Jack, unless he wants you to.
Of course, the person who wants to be seen and known here is Mr. Cruise. The actor has a penchant for blank-slate action heroes: Think of Ethan Hunt, the hero of the “Mission: Impossible” series. What do we actually know about him? Not much, except what Mr. Cruise puts on screen. The same goes for Reacher. These roles are designed as stripped-down star vehicles: You don’t see the character, only the actor. The movie is called “Jack Reacher.” It could have just as easily been called “Tom Cruise.”
Whether Mr. Cruise is a particularly good actor doesn’t matter much here. He’s an effective presence, which is what the role requires. In supporting roles, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog all perform admirably as Reacher’s friends and foils. Mr. Duvall, in particular, offers a reminder of why he’s still working after all these years. Like the rest of the movie, he’s a little bit old-fashioned, but he still gets the job done.
TITLE: “Jack Reacher”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie
RATING: PG-13, for violence, language (Some viewers may find some of the material disturbing given recent events in Newtown, Conn.)
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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