Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Edward Zwick, 2016) 2 out of 4 stars
I missed reading all of the opening credits on the new Jack Reacher film – sequel to the 2012 original and based on the 18th book in the long-running series from author Lee Child – so I didn’t notice the director’s name until the end. When I finally did, it gave me some pause. Edward Zwick? The man who once helmed Glory and Legends of the Fall – critical and box office hits, respectively – is now directing a sequel to a modest 4-year-old box-office hit? The mighty can, indeed, tumble. That said, this fact helps explain why the action sequences are so finely wrought and why the movie zips along briskly, almost making us forget the utter inanity of the script. The undeniable appeal of the two leads, Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) – his Scientology exploits notwithstanding – and Cobie Smulders (Unexpected), ably assisted by young Danika Yarosh (Heroes Reborn), is a major plus, as well, but it’s the mise-en-scène that makes the movie. Which allows Zwick to atone for his collaboration on a screenplay so rife with improbabilities and coincidences that it otherwise strains cinematic credulity as the plot details accumulate. It’s certainly a lot of fun (if also extremely violent), but that enjoyment is predicated on leaving one’s critical faculties at home.
I’ve never tackled any of Child’s books, so all I have to go on is the first film. In it, Cruise’s Reacher – a former army major – helped out an investigation that led, eventually, to the killing of some nefarious individuals (that’s all I can remember). He seemed to be good at everything, like a shorter, American James Bond, able to physically dominate opponents even when outnumbered. Now he’s back, re-introduced in an opening where we first see the groaning bodies of the men he has destroyed before finding him, alone, in a diner, calmly waiting for the next group of misguided bad guys to try their own hand at beating him. Not surprisingly, he wins that round, too, though by his wits, rather than fists. He then leaves for his next mission. In this second film, he appears to be a sort of unofficial army agent, dealing directly with the still-active Major Turner (Smulders), with whom he shares flirtatious phone banter while they jointly track down enemies of the state. Until, one day, Reacher shows up at army headquarters in Washington, DC, ready to ask Turner out to dinner, only to find out she’s in deep trouble. The plot then thickens, especially once Reacher picks up a young charge (Yarosh), as well, after which we take off on a journey of manic mayhem, staged with panache and not a small amount of wry humor. Pow, snap, crunch, chuckle.
Cruise sets himself up as a mighty superman, and at 54 years of age certainly still looks fit enough to sell himself as a fighter. The problem lies not with him, but with the film’s morbid fascination with the tearing and breaking of limbs, glorified as much as Cruise’s torso. Smulders, not to be outdone, gets in on the action, too, and then we have the both of them cracking skulls with equal glee. Anything he can do, she can do just as well (or almost, as he’s still the indisputable star), as their on-the-nose dialogue about male and female roles reminds us time and again. The villains in the film are not that interesting. so it’s all to the benefit of the story that Cruise and Smulders are as watchable as they are. It’s just too bad that in the midst of all the carnage, no one thought to write a better story. When, at the end, Reacher walks down a lonely road, an eternal drifter, it’s hard not to recall the ending of every episode of the great late-1970s TV show The Incredible Hulk, when Bill Bixby would wander away from that particular installment’s location, ever alone. Cruise seems even to have practiced Bixby’s grim scowl, knowing that bad things happen when he gets angry. Too bad the writers didn’t also crib the quality of that show’s teleplays, each one of which told a better-constructed tale than Jack Reacher: Never Go Back even attempts to. If you can forget the story, and focus on the action and the leads, however, you may still have a good time. Good luck!