No, Tom Cruise was never right for Jack Reacher but here’s the thing: he has a pretty much unrivalled ability to make you accept him in a role, even when you don’t want to. Given the sometimes high profile of his personal and professional life, it’s difficult sometimes to watch him dispassionately. But I’ve heard – and not just through anonymous industry types with a vested interest, but first-hand through a friend who has worked on sets with him – that he is an incredibly friendly and approachable presence towards everyone he works with, and his more unguarded interviews like that on the Nerdist podcast seem to show a genuine love for film and thirst for learning about it.
Arguably one shouldn’t need to make this sort of judgement in order to enjoy a film anyway. But I’ll say this: I watched Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and my preconceptions of Cruise didn’t cross my mind once. Largely this is because his performance, unlike in his first, eponymous outing as the character, is entirely un-Cruise-y. And the best thing about this is that it’s far more Reacher-y.
2012’s Jack Reacher was a serviceable army-of-one vigilante actioner, but as a fan of the books I was biased against it from the start and bound to pick holes. Quite aside from his height, Cruise brought to it far too much of the Hollywood showiness that is the point of casting him. His Reacher made women in stores simper, and posed with his shirt off in doorways. But key to Lee Child’s Reacher is that he is not impressed by himself: what the reader might see as awesome badassery is for him often just a necessary action to rid himself of inconvenience. He has a keen sense of wanting to see injustice righted, but he doesn’t think that makes him a hero.
Everything good about its sequel is what makes it less like a Cruise performance and more like Reacher. There is a rugged sort of tiredness to him; he’s not in superhuman shape. He seems to embody more convincingly deadly force than before, when it all seemed a bit soft four years ago. He is not even – I mean sure, we’re talking about Tom Cruise here, but still – particularly good looking. All of this is presumably deliberate, and to Cruise’s and director Edward Zwick’s credit, given that the first film was broadly well received and the onus on them to change the template was zero.
There are other pleasing elements, like a meaty role for the excellent Cobie Smulders as Major Susan Turner, the CO of Reacher’s old military police unit and a love interest non-traditional both in her character and in how she relates to the male lead. There are times when the script’s mask slips, and she is too easily overcome in a scrap when we’ve been encouraged to view her as Reacher’s equal, but the overall impact is a hefty female role in a genre never overly concerned with them. Danika Yarosh is also resplendently stroppy as Samantha, their teenaged ward, and is again given more to do than run and hide in cupboards.
Never Go Back isn’t one of the books I’ve read; I ran out of steam midway through the thirteenth and haven’t gone back to them. So maybe you could say I’m more given to an even-handed approach this time around (One Shot, the source for the first film, is the best of the books for me). This outing doesn’t so much win me over as a born-again Cruise fan as it does do a thoroughly effective job of making me forget any external gripes with which I went into it.
You could perceive an arrogance about an ageing but beautiful movie star buying the rights to a book about an imposingly tough and sexy hero so he can play him, and the first film, with its more flashy insistence on employing Cruise the star, might bear that out. But here there’s no trace of ego; no telltale flash of that million-dollar smile. It shows an understanding of the character and a willingness to suppress his instincts to play him. If he stood on a box, he’d be pretty close to the movie Reacher the books deserve.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is in UK cinemas from October 21st.