Cruisin’ for a snoozin’

Leather and denim now count as fatigues in the U.S. military.

Leather and denim now count as fatigues in the U.S. military.

Rated 3.0

Every five years or so, Tom Cruise turns out another entertaining Mission: Impossible film, which serves to remind us once again why he’s a movie star, and why movie stars matter. Now two deep into movie adaptations of the Lee Child book series about an ex-soldier turned peripatetic amateur dick, the Jack Reacher franchise is becoming the anti-Mission: Impossible for Cruise—both of the mangy Jack Reacher movies are serviceable but forgettable, and they only remind us that star power has its limits.

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie helmed the first Jack Reacher film, but Edward Zwick (Glory) takes over here. An awkward fit for the genre, Zwick is more at home with mawkish, awards-grubbing message pictures, and compared to McQuarrie, his approach to the material is less high-key gritty and more TV-style traditional. The resulting film is a little less distinctive and a little more digestible than McQuarrie’s grim take—Zwick gets the job done, but it’s thankless work.

I’ve never read any of the Child books, but I assume that Never Go Back is a more traditional adaptation than Jack Reacher, as it hits so many of the expected detective novel beats that you can practically call out the chapter numbers. After helping to bust some crooked small-town cops, Reacher stumbles into a military conspiracy involving a framed colleague (Cobie Smulders) and some sleazy arms dealers, and there’s even a sassy street urchin who might be Reacher’s daughter to round out the clichés.

The most notable thing about Never Go Back is that it continues the trend of Cruise getting outshined by his female co-stars. Emily Blunt was the more believable action hero in Edge of Tomorrow, while Rebecca Ferguson’s highly physical performance in Rogue Nation made a lot of people wish that Cruise would pass her the keys to the Mission: Impossible franchise. And now Smulders gets all of the best moments in Never Go Back, showing toughness, sensitivity, comedic timing and a Cruise-ian will to action.

On the one hand, Cruise deserves a lot of credit for staying in his lane and allowing these powerful women to take over his films, letting them flash the charisma and panache while he commits to steely-eyed terseness. But on the other hand, it only makes you wonder why these actresses aren’t headlining their own big-budget genre pictures instead of Cruise. I’m a lot more excited to see what Smulders does next than I am to see Cruise do the same thing again and again.

Back to Never Go Back—who cares? There’s a dopey mystery that my grade-school nephew could solve, a handful of arousing action scenes, Cruise punches a guy through a car window, and did I mention the sassy street urchin? But in a month when we were reminded that tough women are often labeled as “nasty,” a theater of middle-aged men cheering as Smulders promises to grab a leering villain “by the hair plugs and bitch slap” him sounded strangely like hope.