I understand why fans of Lee Child’s series of Jack Reacher novels would be upset by the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role. Jack Reacher is supposed to be a tall, blond, muscle-bound, physically powerful brute of a man, and Cruise isn’t any of those things except a man. And truth be told, there’s a line or two in the movie “Jack Reacher” (written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, adapting Child’s novel “One Shot”) that don’t make sense when applied to someone of Cruise’s stature.
But putting that aside, Cruise sparkles in the role, exhibiting charisma, menace, and action-hero awesomeness as Reacher, a former Army investigator who now lives off the grid and shows up only when his skills as a cop or fighter are needed. When an Iraq veteran is framed for an awful set of random murders in Pittsburgh, Reacher contacts the man’s defense attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike), who happens to be the daughter of the district attorney (Richard Jenkins). At first Reacher and Helen have no reason to disbelieve the evidence against her client (who’s comatose and can’t explain himself), but soon Reacher’s Sherlock-like ability to notice minor details leads them to the suspicion that something is amiss. (Which it is, of course. We saw the murders as they were committed, and the shooter was not the man who’s been arrested. No mystery there, at least not for us.)
McQuarrie, who wrote “The Usual Suspects” and wrote and directed “The Way of the Gun,” has fun with the conventions of the genre of movies where savvy detectives follow clues and uncover hidden conspiracies. He’s not reinventing the wheel here, but he gives Cruise and company a lot of quick, snappy dialogue to keep things interesting, and the story is engaging as it unfolds. David Oyelowo lends support as a police detective, Robert Duvall is a welcome sight as the owner of a gun range, and Werner Herzog (yes, the crazy German director) is giddily hammy as a cold-hearted villain.
The movie only stumbles when it dabbles in realism. The sniper incident at the beginning is chilling, as are certain other violent elements in the story — unnecessarily, and uncomfortably so. Usually McQuarrie keeps things light, letting us enjoy the fantasy of one man defending himself against five enemies with nothing but his fists, or an absurd interrogation in which someone is ordered to bite off his own thumb. But when McQuarrie gets serious on us, the tone doesn’t jibe at all with the movie’s frivolity. When you’ve got the title character saying, “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot,” it’s hard to go back to down-to-earth authenticity. Why even try? We’re looking for escapism here.
B (2 hrs., 10 min.; )