Four years ago, Tom Cruise returning for a sequel to Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher seemed improbable. Although the film – a lean, no-frills crime thriller directed and scripted by McQuarrie from One Shot, the ninth in Lee Child’s series of novels about the titular anti-hero – was well-received by critics, it did not seem to catch on with audiences in a big way. One of those films on the “bubble” (meaning not a complete box office failure but also not quite an unconditional success), the movie nevertheless just scraped past $200 million at the worldwide box office.
Meanwhile, the movie also grew in stature within fans and critics’ circles thanks to a healthy afterlife in all the usual home viewing formats, fondly seen as a quirky throwback to the better genre efforts of the ‘70s: tough, meat-and-potatoes efforts like Bullitt, The Seven-Ups, or, more ambitiously, The French Connection. Cruise, despite grousing by fans of the book over the fact that he looked nothing like the hulking Reacher described by Child, gave a gritty, charismatic performance, backed up by a cast that included Robert Duvall, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins and, in an inspired move, Werner Herzog as the nameless central villain.
None of those folks, save Cruise, are present in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and McQuarrie isn’t around either, having passed the directorial torch to Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond), who penned the script with his partner Marshall Hershkowitz from an initial draft by Richard Wenk. Zwick has not until now directed a hard-as-nails crime film, per se, but he knows his way around action through films like the aforementioned Glory and the tense, incredibly prescient The Siege. Yet that strange charm that bolstered Jack Reacher is gone, along with any kind of standout cast, and the plot, based on Child’s 18th Reacher novel, ends up being more of a generic military conspiracy programmer than anything original.
The problem may well be that the producers and studio are randomly choosing stories out of order. The Child books don’t necessarily have to be read straight through from the first to the 20th, but Never Go Back is the culmination of a story thread that was started in previous novels Worth Dying For and A Wanted Man. The result is that it seems odd that after establishing Reacher as a drifter in the first film, a man who has completely taken himself off the grid, the franchise would send him right back to the military establishment he supposedly left long behind (yes, the sequel is set four years after the first movie, but he’s been out of that life for longer).
But that’s what Reacher is doing, and he’s doing it for the most mundane of reasons: he has a date, namely with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders from The Avengers), who in turn has his old job with his military unit and occasionally provides him with problems to solve in his unorthodox way. When Reacher gets there, however, he discovers that Turner has been removed from her post and accused of espionage in a murky narrative involving illegal arms sales, sinister career military men, and an assassin so stock that he doesn’t even have a name (he’s just called the Hunter and is played indifferently by Patrick Heusinger, the latest in a series of undercooked action film villains).
Reacher also learns that he may have a daughter, an irritating teen named Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who conveniently provides the Hunter with a threat to hold over Reacher’s head. So he, Turner, and Samantha end up on the run, forming the generic movie “family” that somehow one doesn’t expect Reacher to be saddled with as they are pursued by the Hunter and other assorted baddies while Samantha does her level best to get herself in trouble at every turn (like leaving the hotel room where the trio spend a good deal of the second act).
Rather than build on the mystique and allure of Reacher as a man alone in the world, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back begins to soften him up, which they perhaps should have waited to do in a third or even fourth film. Cruise doesn’t seem to buy it either: he musters up some energy for the incredibly brutal fight scenes, but otherwise his performance here seems half-hearted for him – a shock considering how he usually does his best to drive even less than compelling material. He and Smulders share little chemistry together, and the rest of the cast is literally a bunch of people you’ve barely heard of or seen before being saddled with characters that are about as developed as a roll of accidentally exposed film.
Speaking of the action, it does get especially violent in several hand-to-hand fight scenes, but the stakes are so confusing and the antagonists so ill-formed that they take on a repetitive, tedious tone. Also puzzling is the idea to use a series of point-of-view flashbacks that somehow represent Reacher’s ability to deduce what happened at the crime scenes he comes across – a friend called it “Reacher Vision” after the screening we saw so let’s go with that for lack of a better way to describe this distracting device.
Zwick has made a number of very good movies – just last year he wrung a lot of tension and drama out of a chess match in Pawn Sacrifice – but he either got crossed up by his own script here or was mandated with putting Reacher through paces that seemed out of character with the first film, because Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a disappointment whose title may unwittingly end up serving as the epitaph for a briefly promising franchise.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is out in theaters Friday (Oct. 21).