JACK REACHER (M)
Rating: 2.5 stars
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Joseph Sikora, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall
In his new two-fisted film, Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise plays a righteous American fantasy: a military veteran-turned-loner of unimpeachable moral virtue who really knows how to hurt people.
Jack Reacher always does the right thing, even when it includes punching a man in the testicles, and for a movie where the title character is supposed to be taciturn, he goes out of his way to let everyone know that they are not as tough or as smart or as dedicated as Jack Reacher is.
It has been widely noted that on the page the character of Reacher - the protagonist of 17 novels by crime author Lee Child, including 2005's One Shot on which this film is based - is a force of nature; 195 centimetres tall and built like a missile frigate.
Tom Cruise cannot duplicate any of these physical traits, but it doesn't matter. What Cruise and Reacher share is a sense of complete and unstinting commitment to whatever they're doing.
As a movie role, Jack Reacher verges on the ludicrous, but Cruise gives it his all. In fact, a better technical actor, such as Michael Fassbender, would founder in the part, whereas Cruise takes in his stride the wide-eyed double-takes from flustered women and deferential respect from men.
More than a decade ago, with Magnolia, director Paul Thomas Anderson used Cruise's unwavering focus to reveal a toxic form of masculinity; in Jack Reacher it reveals a man who headbutts a thug, then uses the thug's head to headbutt the next thug.
That's not progress, rather a pulpy kind of entertainment, but it's what American writer and director Christopher McQuarrie has targeted.
“You think?” sneers an entry-level hood at Reacher, trying to goad him. “All the time. You should try it,” comes the reply, and McQuarrie – the creator of Keyser Soze and 1995's The Usual Suspects – knows this macho banter back to front, keeping the rhythms bluntly simple for Cruise.
McQuarrie has an eye for inventively cutting exposition to visuals, so that information is communicated with dexterity. At the start of Jack Reacher, after a former soldier is framed for the cold-blooded execution by sniper fire of six Pittsburgh residents, his request for Reacher's presence allows the district attorney, Rodin (Richard Jenkins), and the investigating police detective, Emerson (David Oyelowo), to laud the mystery man while admitting they can't find him, even as a purposeful Reacher finds them.
Because Reacher has his own interest in the arrested man, Barr (Joseph Sikora), and is so naturally impressive, he swiftly becomes the lead investigator for the defence attorney, Rodin's daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike), allowing him to poke around and identify deficiencies in everyone else's work and stir the workings of conspiracy that is daftly excessive but most pleasurable because it's overseen by Werner Herzog.
A single rote sentence spoken by the German filmmaker - here improbably playing a criminal mastermind with the usual monstrous pathology - is enough to suggest his now trademark narration of his own documentaries.
When they're on screen together you forget about his bad-guy paraphernalia – a milky eye and a murderous sidekick played by Jai Courtney – and hope Herzog will simply start talking about Cruise as if he's a man who lives with bears.
McQuarrie's one previous effort at directing was 2000's The Way of the Gun, a modern day western, but Jack Reacher recalls the sometimes loopy, often overblown action films of the 1980s, such as the original Lethal Weapon.
When all the film's characters convene in a quarry for a shoot-out, the film is bathed in tough-guy nostalgia, and it's only exacerbated by Reacher dropping his gun so he can fight hand-to-hand with an adversary.
The film envisages murder as a cruel, cold act, with the uncertainty of the sniper attack genuinely terrifying, and that should translate to a lean, tough action movie that stays a step ahead of expectation. But several long scenes exist only to remind us of how gifted Reacher is, particularly a visit to a gun range run by Robert Duvall's grizzled Cash. The veteran's mercurial smile is welcome, but the further glorification of Reacher is unnecessary.
The problem isn't that Tom Cruise doesn't resemble Jack Reacher, it's that there's not enough in Jack Reacher to satisfy Tom Cruise. At the age of 50, the star's youthful cockiness has solidified into narcissism, but without the compensatory charm of a Robert Downey jnr. For a vigilante who travels light, Jack Reacher carries an awfully big ego.
Jack Reacher is released in Australia on January 3