Jacked up

Tom Cruise fills big shoes in uneven action thriller

Judge, jury and badass.

Judge, jury and badass.

Jack Reacher
Starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike and Richard Jenkins. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Releasing Jack Reacher just before Christmas would be a little weird even in a year unmarked by December massacres with automatic weapons. The title character, however, is a lone wolf, an off-the-grid guardian angel/knight errant/avenger who is vastly more concerned with rough justice than with social niceties of any sort, and so maybe an against-the-grain release was inevitable, whatever the season.

Reacher, the hero of a series of novels by Lee Child, is played here by Tom Cruise, and screenwriter-director Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun) has fashioned it all into a smoothly propulsive tough-guy vehicle for its star. Cruise’s lack of Reachersque height (the guy is 6’5” in the novels) has gotten a lot of advance press, but the 5’7” actor gives a consistently credible account of the title character, both as lone wolf/guardian avenger and as semi-superhuman fighting machine.

Adapted from a Reacher/Child novel called One Shot, the film is a murder mystery that begins with a sniper shooting down people, apparently at random, in a city square. The “ghostly” and elusive Reacher enters the case in peculiar fashion—the chief suspect, a former Army sniper, has sought his help—and he stays (always on his own narrowly defined terms) to sort through the ensuing tangle of corrupt law enforcement, feminine distractions, evil-schemer masterminds and heavily armed thugs and malcontents.

The heavies include an off-the-grid conspirator and Russian refugee (oddly underplayed by filmmaker Werner Herzog) and a semi-interchangeable array of hulking thugs. Australian Jai Courtney is the most imposing of that lot, and Joseph Sikora (as the sniper/suspect) is the most touchingly pathetic.

James Martin Kelly has a good moment or two as a grieving father/victims-rights poster boy. David Oyelowo is stuck with a key police role that proves less and less coherent as the story moves along.

The women of consequence are an adventurous defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) who enlists a reluctant Reacher as an investigator on behalf of the sniper/suspect, and a caricatured and pathetically pliant young blonde (Alexia Fast) who gets trapped in the crossfire of conspiracies. Both of them find Reacher tantalizing, but he stops short of full-on romance—he seems capable of seduction, but apparently he prefers the role of protector.

As such, this tale with its manly gun-love and bedazzled females might seem a little like semi-repressed pornography for boyish hunter/warrior wannabes. Be that as it may, it’s clearly a Cruisified version of the paranoid action thriller as practiced previously by Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris and “Dirty Harry” Eastwood.

All told, the action scenes are its strongest suit. There’s a terrific, inventively extended car chase, in which Cruise appears to do some of his own stunt driving. A slam-bang dust-up inside a small bathroom almost works as absurdist comedy. But an elaborate shoot-out in a quarry ends up looking a little too much like a videogame routine.