Review: Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie make ‘Jack Reacher’ a compelling pulp hero

Christopher McQuarrie’s sole film as writer/director is a jet-black little piece of neo-noir called “The Way Of The Gun.”  While it wasn’t a hit when it came out, it certainly had its fans, and I was among them.  I liked the uncompromising sensibility of it, the way it seemed unafraid to be horribly nasty, and the streamlined narrative style.  McQuarrie was first established by his script for “The Usual Suspects,” of course, and he’s remained a frequent collaborator of Bryan Singer, working on both “Jack The Giant Slayer” and “Valkyrie.”

Tom Cruise is also a fan of McQuarrie’s work, with the writer contributing to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “All You Need Is Kill,” and the most-likely-cancelled “Top Gun 2,” and now McQuarrie has finally directed his second film, and he and Cruise have struck paydirt here.  I will admit that I was incredibly skeptical of Cruise for the title role in “Jack Reacher,” but I am won over by the film itself, and I feel like this is a really canny way of bringing the work of Lee Child to life.

For those unfamiliar with the seventeen novels featuring the character so far, he is a very calculated creation, a pulp hero that appeals to a sort of hyper-masculine ideal.  In the books, Reacher is a 6’5″ muscle-bound ape of a guy who happens to be incredibly intelligent, a keen investigator who retired from active duty in the Army to wander America.  He stumbles into trouble and, like Travis McGee, a sort of “knight errant” chromosome forces him to right any wrongs he stumbles across.  He can’t help himself.  He just isn’t wired to allow the strong to victimize the weak as long as there’s something he can do about it.  He has no luggage, no home, no ties to anything.  He has a bank account where his social security checks are deposited automatically, and he stays on the move constantly.

“One Shot” was the ninth book in the series, and the first I read.  Just a coincidence that would end up being the one that McQuarrie used to kick start the film franchise, but it does seem like a perfect introduction to the character.  The film is a fairly faithful adaptation, all things considered.  Characters have been eliminated, and the timeline has been compressed somewhat, but overall, “Jack Reacher” gets the spirit of “One Shot” right onscreen, and I would imagine Lee Child is thrilled with how much of his character survived intact in the transition from page to screen.

The film opens with a scene that some audiences might have trouble with in light of the recent school shooting, a sniper across from a baseball stadium opening fire on an unsuspecting crowd.  The attack leaves five people dead, and within hours, the police are able to follow a trail of clues to James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a recent veteran who is obviously the shooter.  Beaten into a coma while in custody, Barr has enough time during his first interrogation to write a simple message:  “Find Jack Reacher.”  Before the district attorney (Richard Jenkins), Barr’s lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), and the lead investigator on the case, Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), can even discuss how to find Reacher, he arrives in town and walks right into the police station.

Reacher reveals that he investigated a case in Iraq involving Barr, and he’s convinced the man got away with murder once before.  He’s been waiting for Barr to slip up and do it again.  He isn’t exactly welcomed into the investigation, but Reacher doesn’t really care what the local authorities want.  He’s there to put Barr away permanently, and he doesn’t have to worry about following due process.  When he is attacked by a bunch of local thugs led by Jeb (Josh Helman), Reacher begins to suspect that Barr was actually innocent, that there’s a frame being set, and he starts to follow the clues.  Along the way, he encounters a vulnerable (and insanely cute) local girl named Sandy (Alexia Fast), a retired Marine who owns a local gun range (Robert Duvall), and a truly creepy former gulag prisoner known only as The Zec (Werner Herzog).

Because Cruise doesn’t have the size to make Reacher the same sort of hulking menace that he is on the page, they had to find a new way to make him threatening, and what they’ve done is make him a brutal, quick, scientific fighter.  When Reacher swings into action, he has one goal:  disable anyone who threatens him.  McQuarrie and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have come up with an elegant, even old-school approach to how they shoot the action, and every single punch thrown, every kick, every broken bone, it’s all shot with clarity and a very precise, easy to follow sense of geography.  The same is true of a great car chase in the middle of the film.  There are some great technical tricks involved, but the end result feels like a throwback to a time when the point of a car chase was to actually create a sensation of speed and impact.  I don’t think McQuarrie and Deschanel shake the camera even one time, and it’s thrilling to watch an action film that actually encourages you to follow what’s happening.

It’s also frequently very funny, and I give Cruise a lot of credit for embracing just how unlikely a creation Reacher is.  He never treats anything in the film like a joke, but there is a lightness of tone, even when things get crazy, that makes this feel like fun.  Herzog gives a performance you have to see to believe, one that trades on his well-established persona as a filmmaker, and the more straightfaced Herzog delivers his lines, the more shamelessly entertaining he is.  Duvall contributes a sort of wry charm that Everyone seems to be in on the joke, too, and the entire ensemble makes a strong impression.  The film moves at a clip, and its relatively modest scale actually works in its favor.  It all feels lean and mean, and it ends on a note that suggests this is just one chapter in a larger story.  I’ll be curious to see if mainstream audiences get onboard with something like this at Christmas, but if they do, I’d love to see new Reacher films every few years.  Cruise may not be the same size as the Reacher of the novels, but this is every bit as entertaining as any fan of the character could hope.

“Jack Reacher” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.