By Matt Easton, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 18, 2013
“Jack Reacher” might as well be called “Tom Cruise.” No audience in America will gasp when Cruise makes his appearance 10 minutes into the movie; few people will expect him to transform beyond recognition into a compelling role (à la Daniel Day-Lewis in everything or, well, Cruise in “Tropic Thunder”). This is a Tom Cruise action movie, which means you already know 90 percent of what you need to know.
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This, for people who want to attend entertaining movies, is perfectly OK if Cruise carries out his end of the bargain. The bargain being that Cruise remains compelling to watch — an essential skill for any actor, but his lifeblood.
In “Jack Reacher,” Cruise’s physical stunts only diminish slightly from his previous work. At moments, his silhouette seems borrowed from the “Mission: Impossible” franchise (the prominent nose and tuft of hair), which makes it less striking, but his steadicam scenes of combat and movement occasionally seem fresh. Fresh may be an inappropriate word though, as “Reacher” seems to reach back toward the past for its action tropes. The fighting is direct and realistic without the crutch of shaky-cam; the car-chase scenes are loaded with skidding and minor bumps — creating chaotic, screeching tension. Perhaps most wonderfully, the gun fights ring with hundreds of missed bullets as combatants dash for strategic cover. It’s more “duck and cover” than “kill hundreds of bad guys.”
Beyond the physical is the more-intriguing mental state of Cruise. In his movies, there has always been a sense of detachment, with perhaps a glimmer of some erratic behavior. The “cool” in Cruise comes from the detachment, the “compelling” comes from his sudden, wry humor. In “Jack Reacher,” he nails detachment. Reacher is cold and calculating; even though he’s hit on by literally every woman in the film (one wonders who added that to the script), Reacher remains stoic and untouchable.
It’s in a similar vein to “The Expendables” series, in which bros help out the ladies not for sexual gain but for a sense of revenge or justice. This detachment, though, provides a feeling of something missing, of an opportunity wasted. While it makes sense within Reacher’s character (ex-military, extremely diligent, justice-seeking, etc.), there’s still a nagging sensation that Cruise could be doing a little more, that he could not just say funny lines (of which there are plenty in this film) but also deliver them in more humorous ways. In “Reacher,” one wishes Cruise would give a “Risky Business” smile, instead of just resting on a stern “M.I.” expression.
Beyond the leading actor, “Jack Reacher” also provides some surprising roles. Rosamund Pike (“Wrath of the Titans”) is excellent as a lawyer providing a flickering love interest for Reacher. There’s a dignity in Pike’s characterization, a determination and regality that is powerful and sexy — it’s refreshing to watch. Werner Herzog (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) completely chills as a stubby crime lord. One particular Herzog scene imagines one of the more horrific choices someone pushed to the edge would have to make (think self-cannibalization). Lastly, Robert Duvall (“Get Low”) provides a much needed side-kick for the titular character, and proves old men can hang with the young guys.
Modern times contain a lot of self-depreciation, and movies are catching on to this fact, especially within the shoot-’em-up genre. “Jack Reacher” understands this, and it almost perfectly toes the line between serious and comedic. Cruise ends up as the barometer for the movie’s success, and while he wears the grim mask of a soldier driven toward justice quite well, one wishes it would occasionally slip off to reveal a grin underneath.