Jack Reacher Review: When Good Movies and Tone-Deaf Marketing Collide

The movie that’s currently being marketed as TOM CRUISE: MIDGET SUPERSPY is actually a pretty clever pulp crime story from the writer of The Usual Suspects with Werner Herzog playing a bad guy. Oh, did you not know that? It’s probably because Paramount thinks you’re eight, and the movie you saw being advertised was TOM CRUISE, 50-YEAR-OLD HARDASS, BEATS PEOPLE UP BECAUSE THE MILITARY! And that’s best-case scenario, assuming you even got past EASY GAY JOKE: THE FILM.

“Jack Reacher” is not a title. Jack Reacher is the franchise the studio wants to build, Paramount’s marketing department like a badly written character spouting his motivations out loud instead of dialog. Raiders of the Lost Ark, First Blood, shit, even The Bourne Identity – those were titles, people calling them “Rambo” came later. More than just crappy branding and presumptuous marketing, “Jack Reacher” is symptomatic of a mindset stuck in the days when you could just put a big star like Tom Cruise’s name above the title and every Joe Sixpack and Charla Cheesesnack would rush to the multiplex from all around to throw money at you while it snowed cocaine. Only it’s not 1985 anymore. You actually have to sell what you’ve got. And what you’ve got ain’t James Bond: Musclecar Edition. And thank God. The world needs another invincible secret agent franchise like Tom Cruise needs extra large muscle tees.

The Lee Child book on which Jack Reacher is based (Lee Child being the pen name of British author Jim Grant) was called “One Shot,” which is actually a perfect title for this, a pulp thriller about an army sniper who goes on a spree shooting that turns out to be not quite what it seemed. And yes, a movie that opens with a spree shooting is as poorly-timed as it sounds. Paramount even canceled the red carpet premiere, which was to have taken place the day after the Newtown killings. But Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie didn’t kill anyone, they just made a movie, and as it turns out, it’s actually a pretty good one. Whereas Bourne characters just sort of shouted Spy Movie buzzwords at each other to tread water between shaky-cam car fu and punchy-kick parkour fights, Jack Reacher is actually, like, a story, and one seemingly written for adults, that doesn’t involve plot points like amnesia, or quicksand, or screamy white girls getting kidnapped and sold into white slavery, or flying to Qatar to recover a one-of-a-kind diamond from a rare Ukranian prostitute. The crime plot at the heart of it is a bit cartoony and so are the bad guys, but it’s a believable-enough story that entices you to follow along and actually rewards you for paying attention. And that’s all you really want out of a pulpy procedural, aside from sexy boob ladies and pew-pew gun fights.

Jack Reacher has so much mass appeal, it’s like a pumped-up episode of Law and Order done well, and all Paramount had to do to keep from f*cking it up was not John Carter it with a name like “Jack Reacher.” Did they really think someone would forget the name and they wouldn’t be able to make a sequel? NO ONE is going to forget the name. They said “Reacher” 21 times. I counted.

When production of the film was announced, fans of the book vocally complained about 5’7″ Cruise being cast as ex-military police, off-the-grid drifter Jack Reacher, who’s described in the books as “6′ 5″ tall with a 50-inch chest, and weighing between 210 and 250 pounds, He has very little body fat, and his muscular physique is completely natural (he reveals in Persuader, he has never been an exercise enthusiast).”

First of all, no one cares how faithful a movie is to your homoerotic supermarket paperback, so shut up unless you want an atomic wedgie. Secondly, that’s called movie magic. If short guys couldn’t play taller guys, we’d get White Men Can’t Jump starring Brendan Fraser and Dikembe Mutumbo. And no one wants Brendan Fraser toplining an action franchise, not even his mother. Using mean and crafty to stand in for big and brutish, Cruise fits the part fine. The only real discrepancies are a cop’s line about how “I only know one man who could kill with one punch…” – which I actually didn’t even know was supposed to be about Jack Reacher until an hour after the movie – and the way every chick Reacher meets seems to throw herself at him. Tom Cruise is handsome and all, and I’d kill for his hair, but I don’t know many 50-year-old drifters who can’t walk four feet without crowds of 23-year-olds parting to wring out their panties. But then, it’s set in Pittsburgh, and Tom Cruise has all his teeth, so who knows. The most egregious casting isn’t even Tom Cruise, it’s the junior college lacrosse team they got to play a ring of meth cooks, presumably by the same casting agent who handles the Brinks home security commercials. Actual line: “No way, bro! Jeb would never leave his moms alone like that! Sh*t ain’t right!”

For unintentional humor, there’s really nothing like a Peter Facinelli-type thugged up with a sideways baseball hat droppin ghetto pluralisms.

But I forgive all the minor casting choices because WERNER HERZOG PLAYS THE BAD GUY WHY HASN’T ANYONE THOUGHT OF THIS BEFORE. They basically wrote him into the role of the bleak supervillain he almost already was. Herzog plays “The Zec,” the mysterious puppet master behind a shadowy corporation who tells us that he “spent an entire winter in a Siberian prison wearing a dead man’s coat.” Just imagine Werner Herzog speaking those words. Awesome, right? It is. He gnawed his own fingers off, he tells us, to keep from dying of frostbite (the dead man’s coat had a hole in the pocket). I giggled like a ticklish schoolgirl every time he talked. They even got Richard Jenkins and Robert Duvall in smaller roles, which, in a popcorny Tom Cruise movie, is like getting Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen to play on your some other sports metaphor that works here.

Jack Reacher is a solid movie that never pretends to be a film. It has a few problems here and there, like an unlikely sidekick (Duvall) who’s a lot more helpful than he has any reason to be (no friends, that’s the drawback of being a romantic drifter), and a script that can’t quite decide whether to go full chauvinist (Rosamund Pike and her heaving cleavage are just shy of eye candy). But it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t make a mess. Something that doesn’t quite add up in one scene will inevitably become a plot point in the next. Like I said, it rewards you for paying attention. And really, that’s what a genre thriller should be. The action scenes are specific and tactical, with a spatial awareness, rather than just being frenetic and blurry. Basically, Jack Reacher is the kind of guilty-pleasure action movie that people always tried to convince me the Bourne movies were.

And there was even the occasional glimpse of the old Chris McQuarrie, vulgar, borderline-absurd one-liners like a cop threatening to put the bad guy “in with the general population, where they pass you around until a brother can’t tell your fart from a yawn.” Reminding you that McQuarrie’s still the same guy who had Ryan Phillippe threatening to “f*ck start a c*nt’s head” in the Way of the Gun all those years ago. Glad to have him back.