"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" Is Tom Cruise's Worst Film In An Age

Thomas Cruise Mapother IV cares not for your preconceived notions of middle age. The 54-year-old superstar has spent his middle years scaling skyscrapers (for real!) and bashing bad guys’ skulls in (not for real), all the while sprinting his way deeper into our hearts and past the occasional oddball off-screen happening. Sequel “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” sashays into theaters as ostensibly the latest in Cruise tightening his chokehold on the baddest guy of all – Father Time. At least, that’s what Paramount’s marketing department wants you to think. The reality of “Never Go Back” isn’t so lively.

Where 2012’s “Jack Reacher” came and went as a modest creative and financial success – hinting at a suitable B-franchise to Cruise’s A-Franchise (the still flourishing “Mission: Impossible” series) – “Never Go Back” is an old-man action movie that sees Father Time gain on Cruise in a big way. It’s a decidedly cheap-looking, low-energy affair that skimps on the memorable setpieces we’ve come to associate with Cruise, its arthritic screenplay and direction practically graying its star’s hair in real time.

In other words, the movie approximates the boredom of life as a Tom Cruise stunt double.

Coming off last year’s forgettable “Pawn Sacrifice,” director Edward Zwick’s reunion with his “Last Samurai” star arrives with all the forward momentum of a pinball in an empty cabinet. Luckily, we open on the diner scene featured in all of the film’s trailers. Jack Reacher (Cruise), surrounded by unconscious bodies, informs his arresting officers that they’re the lawbreakers. That when a nearby payphone rings, they’ll be ones in handcuffs. Sure enough, our hero’s prediction comes true and he’s on his merry way. The sequence is a fun reprise of the charm and wit of the original film, reestablishing Reacher – ex Military Police Major – as an enigmatic lone wolf, fighting for good in places where good is in short supply.

The scene is by far the best the movie has to offer. Just about everything that follows is fit for basic cable, awkwardly teaming up its lone wolf lead with an embattled Major, Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), and a teenager named Samantha (Danika Yarosh) who might be Reacher’s long-lost daughter. There’s no real sense of danger, no memorable characters, no convincing creative reasons for the movie to exist at all. Its only pleasures are in watching the eminently charismatic Cruise work, and even his performance is a husk of what he usually brings to the table.

Richard Wenk’s screenplay – ultimately rewritten by Zwick and creative partner Marshall Herskovitz – is a confused amalgam of contemporaneously stale 90s thrillers and sorely episodic storytelling. (The film is barely a sequel at all, with almost no connection to its predecessor.) Some of this is inherent in the source material. Author Lee Child began his Jack Reacher series in 1997, releasing at least one book every year since. Wenk and Zwick and Herkovitz mustn’t be blamed for the non-serialized nature of “Never Go Back.” No, blame them for summoning the least interesting villains this side of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond movies. Blame them for the surplus of wooden acting. And blame for them creating a cinematic world in which smartphones and Internet cafes peacefully coexist.

If the constipated story and bland antagonists aren’t crummy enough, Cruise’s supporting cast is enitrely inadequate. The life Smulders has injected into Maria Hill in Marvel’s “Avengers” films is nowhere in sight, likely smothered by the bizarre family dynamic between her, Reacher, and his could-be daughter. (Yarosh gives it her all, but her resolutely dumb teenage dialogue would be too much for any actress to overcome.) Then there’s the revolving door of military personnel characters with consistently muddy motivations, all inhabited by actors whose most compelling trait is that they’re vaguely recognizable – but from what?

As Reacher, Turner, and Samantha move from point A to point B, running from and then towards the CEO of a shady military firm, it’s hard to care and even harder to look past the script’s desperate lunges for our heartstrings. Yes, it’s tough to write a movie around a lone wolf archetype. Who is he or she going to talk to? But a female partner tiptoeing around the duo’s non-existent romantic potential for no discernible reason isn’t the way to go, and throwing in a walking paternity case is a bridge too far.

Inexplicably, the movie comes with the same budget ($60 million) as the first film. Where did it all go? There’s no white knuckle car chase through the streets of Pittsburgh, no tautly choreographed street fight that sees Cruise impossibly overcome his relatively small stature, no nerve-pinching sniper sequences. There are passes at action, but they’re soggy and colorless, like a box of fireworks left out in the rain.

Off-screen antics be damned, Tom Cruise’s filmography is nothing to laugh at, ranging from mostly competent to downright dazzling. It’s been an age since he’s made a movie as bad as “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” making it a watershed moment in an otherwise muscular career. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess, but it’s crucial that he not follow this path, lest he suddenly find himself the aged man he’s always refused to be.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: October 21, 2016
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriters: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Robert Knepper
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements)