Jack Reacher, the star of Lee Child’s bestselling series of thrillers, is the modern equivalent of the knight errant. He’s a former MP who lives off the grid, traveling the US by bus (no ID required), putting right what he sees is wrong. He’s also stands about six-foot-six, so he’s physically imposing simply by standing anywhere. That was why there were howls from the legion of book readers when it was announced that Tom Cruise would play the character in the first movie adaptation from the series. He misses Reacher’s mark by eleven inches.
Cruise has proved, most recently in the excellent Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol that he can handle physical action effectively. And he does do well in this movie. It’s a decent, journeyman thriller, but it lacks the – shall we say, stature – to make it a great thriller.
Based on Child’s 9th Reacher novel, “One Shot,” the setting has been moved from Indiana to Pittsburgh, PA. The movie opens with a well-filmed scene shot on the riverfront near PNC Park. Interspersed with a man loading bullets into cartridges, a sniper sets up in a parking garage. He gazes through his scope at the people across the river from him, then takes down five people, each of them killed by a single shot. The police swarm the garage after the sniper has escaped where they find evidence that points them directly at James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former Army sniper. Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), the lead investigator, asks Barr if he’s willing to write out a confession. Barr takes the paper and pen, but what he writes is “Get Jack Reacher.”
Reacher (Cruise) has seen the news coverage of the shootings and a short time later he shows up in Pittsburgh, walking in on a meeting between Emerson and District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins). Reacher isn’t there as an advocate for Barr; he believes Barr is guilty. He can’t confront the man, though, because the police “accidentally” put Barr in with the general prison population and he was beaten into a coma from which he may never emerge. While they’re looking in on Barr, his attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), arrives and is none too happy that they were with her client without her being present, even if he’s in a coma.
Emerson shows Reacher the sniper rifle used in the attack, but won’t share any other evidence with him. Helen prevails on Reacher to become her investigator on the case, since that will give him access to all of the evidence the prosecution has accumulated. Helen is looking to keep Barr from facing a death sentence. But as Reacher looks into the evidence, he finds it’s too perfect and begins to believe that Barr was set up.
Besides the actors named above, you have Robert Duvall as Cash, the owner/operator of a firing range and a former sniper himself. There’s also German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Grizzly Man) as the main villain, known as The Zec. They are two of the best parts of the movie. The film also features a cameo by Lee Child himself, as a desk sergeant at the police station. He gets a good laugh from his silent role.
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) has also slipped into the director’s chair for this movie. He’d directed one movie prior to this, 2000’s The Way of the Gun. He does a good job of getting the book on film, and he’s included a decent car chase sequence. But there isn’t the sparkle of The Usual Suspects.
Part of it is the two main characters. Reacher is more the physical type of Liam Neeson, who would still be two inches shorter than the character in the book. The physical type is important, because it belies Reacher’s intelligence. Cruise can’t project the inner calm that an imposing physique allows. Instead he occasionally comes across as a bit of a smart aleck.
McQuarrrie has underwritten Pike’s role so that she’s more a generic damsel in distress rather than a tough-as-nails defense attorney. Instead of creating a fiery relationship between Reacher and Helen, McQuarrie is satisfied with a couple comedic sparks. It’s not enough.
That said, if you enjoy thrillers, you could do worse than Jack Reacher. What’s sad is, the filmmakers could have done better.