An anonymous gunman opens fire on unsuspecting bystanders in Pittsburg, killing five. Then he disappears. That’s how Jack Reacher opens. It’s a startling and raw beginning especially in the light of tragic current events. Perhaps that’s why I paid even closer attention than I would have. Even so, there’s a kinetic energy about this movie that demands your attention even when it’s teetering ever so close to the proverbial cliff of clichés.
Right from the beginning we know that this isn’t going to be a by-the-numbers anti-hero procedural. Sure it follows a lot of the same storylines that we’ve seen in thrillers from the past, but the cleverness of the movie lies within its mood. The stage is set with the grizzly shooting. The movie then moves deftly through the police investigation without a word being spoken. Instead Joe Kraemer’s soundtrack swells and director Christopher McQuarrie’s camera work paints a slowly methodical crime thriller more apropos for novels than movies, which works extremely well considering Jack Reacher is based off of the novel “One Shot” by Lee Child.
It seems like an open and shut case. The evidence against a man named Barr mounts fast. A young, eager attorney played by Rosamund Pike takes on the case. Not so much because she thinks he’s innocent, but she will fight for his right to a fair trial. Barr gives only one instruction in his interrogation after the shootings, which he scrawls on a notepad: “Get Jack Reacher.”
Reacher (Tom Cruise) is the consummate action anti-hero. He’s a decorated war veteran who has “gone off the grid.” He stays out of sight and is constantly vigilant of where he is, who he meets, and what it will take to get of any sticky situation he finds himself in. Think of him as a more talkative version of Jason Bourne. Reacher is, above all, a brilliant detective. He sets about investigating the shooting where much of the evidence appears too good to be true.
What’s great about Jack Reacher is that it takes its time. It develops its story, which is a complex and intriguing whodunit, and at the same time lets us examine the enigma that is Reacher. Obviously, this is the Cruise show, but he’s so good at demanding attention that it doesn’t matter. His screen presence here as the shadowy detective is every bit as effective as his role in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Who else can threaten to beat a man to death over the phone and then utter a line like, “I want to drink your blood from a boot!” all the while keeping the entire theater from laughing hysterically? Not many actors can do that, but when Tom Cruise says something that outlandish, you still believe him because he’s downright serious when he says it.
Reacher soon finds himself embroiled in a case that is much deeper than anyone originally thought. This is where the movie settles down, too easily, into already tread ground as far as crime thrillers go (especially where the bad guy is concerned). However, there are more than enough moments in the movie – like a muscle car chase for example – that more than make up for some of the action movie tropes that the movie can’t seem to avoid.
What really works here is its overall mood. It’s dark, but with a few hints of humor. There’s an auto parts store gag, which I’d rather not divulge now, that seemingly comes out of nowhere and works perfectly. McQuarrie has the good mind to keep the camera still during the action scenes. He doesn’t swing it wildly around during fist fights and he doesn’t use half-second edits to create the illusion of movement during the car chase. He makes the film, its characters, and their stories feel organic.
Even though some of the movie feels like you’ve been there and done that, Reacher rises above the dregs of the average action movie and ends up being a clever thriller starring an equally clever hero.