Film Review: Jack Reacher

Loner vet Jack Reacher tackles a case of multiple murders in a gritty adaptation of a Lee Child novel.

A lean, violent thriller, Jack Reacher introduces what the filmmakers hope will be a new franchise based on Lee Child's bestsellers. With Tom Cruise playing against type, and with clever, noir-ish plotting, the film should find an appreciative audience of action fans and Cruise junkies.

The gimmick behind Child's Jack Reacher novels is his hero, a decorated veteran and all-around tough guy who chooses to live off the grid after his career in the Military Police goes south. With no fixed address and no belongings but the clothes on his back, Reacher is an enigma to cops. Like a gunslinger riding into a frontier town, he operates outside the law, with his own sense of right and wrong.

Reacher may be a compelling character, but what makes Child's books work is their plotting. For this film, director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for his The Usual Suspects screenplay) has done a smart job transferring the novel One Shot to the screen. He combines some characters, eliminates others, and finds ingenious ways to tell a complicated story—like an eight-minute opening sequence that details a mass shooting without any dialogue.

Police detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) solves the murder of five Pittsburgh pedestrians quickly, bringing District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins) a solid case against Barr (Joseph Sikora), a sniper Reacher once investigated in the Army. But Rodin's daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike), a novice lawyer starting her own practice, has doubts about the case. When Reacher comes on board, they uncover evidence of a larger conspiracy behind the killings.

The case boils down to a straightforward battle between good guys and bad guys, with characters switching sides now and then. With Barr in a coma after a jailhouse beating, Reacher must piece together the case on his own, explaining clues the police either overlooked or misinterpreted. It's not revealing too much to say that the solution involves a sports bar, an auto-parts store, a sinister shooting range, and a truly creepy Soviet gulag survivor known only as "Zec" (played by German director Werner Herzog).

The fights here tend to be fast and brutal, with Cruise in good form both on the street and in tighter quarters. McQuarrie has also worked in a car chase reminiscent of old-school movies, heavy on physical stunts and light on digital effects.

The result is a solid action film, but Reacher fans might expect more. In the novels, Reacher is effortlessly confident no matter what the situation. Cruise is one of the most popular movie stars in the world, but physically he's just not that menacing. He has to act at being tough, something that makes sense for his Ethan Hunt character in the Mission: Impossible series, but is less convincing here.

But it's nice seeing the actor stepping away from his usual parts and trying something new. It helps that he's working with such superior genre material.