"Jack Reacher" Perfectly Perfunctory

“Jack Reacher” is the kind of film that shows up, checks most of the necessary boxes, and leaves without a trace. It’s competent but undistinguished work, satisfying but entirely uninvolving. Surprisingly, its wit – not its action – is its best quality, but its razor sharp dialogue is so overcooked that it ultimately becomes a liability. Once the audience realizes that the effort put into the story doesn’t match that of its verbal aerobics, the picture is over. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “Jack Reacher” is a chess board, the board made of flowing water and the pieces made of smoke. It’s a disappearing act, a parlor trick, but there might a trace of genius behind it. It’s so forgettable that its rewatchability factor could be off the charts.

Based on the book series by Lee Child, “Jack Reacher” is the first directorial effort by Christopher McQuarrie in twelve years, but in the interim he’s written “Valkyrie” and “The Tourist,” with plenty of other screenplays in the pipeline. The direction here is surefooted enough and the city of Pittsburgh is better utilized than it was in “The Dark Knight Rises.” The city is a character unto itself, unfortunately one that’s more memorable than most of the human characters.

Tom Cruise stars as Reacher, an ex-military drifter. The character is a vigilante, a ghost who doesn’t exist until he’s called upon. When justice beckons, he acts, and as quickly as he appeared, he’s gone. Five people are gunned down in the heart of Pittsburgh, and the suspect asks for the titular hero by name. Soon, the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins) and the suspect’s lawyer (Rosamund Pike) have their man. Reacher’s entrance is one of the best moments of the film, but throughout the movie Cruise is as funny as he’s ever been, all at once whimsical and deadly serious. Despite being nearly a foot shorter than the Reacher of the source material, Cruise is a credible physical presence because he’s played action hero many times before.

Jenkins, one of the most reliable character actors in Hollywood, is fine in a relatively small role, but it’s Rosamund Pike who really shines. Despite supporting in “Die Another Day” and “Wrath Of The Titans,” she’s never had a role of this magnitude and she strikes the perfect balance of smart and attractive. Her expressive eyes and understated delivery are a good match for the material, and the metaphorical tango she does with Cruise lends credence to the Reacher mythmaking that McQuarrie is dealing in.

Weirdly, all of the classic elements of a film noir are in place except the visuals, making the whole enterprise feel a little unsteady. The narrative is a slow burn with sparse action, but the playfulness of the screenplay suggests something a little more substantial. We get a couple fights, a car chase or two, and lots of snark, but its inconspicuousness made me long for the thrills of the Mission: Impossible series. Where that series relies on imagination, “Jack Reacher” pins its hopes on the stylings of old-school thrillers. The former is forward-looking while “Reacher” offers absolutely nothing we haven’t seen before.

Casting the exceedingly quirky Austrian filmmaker Warner Herzog as the villain of the piece was certainly inspired, but the character is written more thinly than his henchman. His motivations, once revealed, are plainly uninteresting and he’s defined as much by his bum eye as anything else. Who is this guy? His right-hand man, played by Jai Courtney, is far more essential to the story, but even he is limited to intermittent gunplay and overtly dry dialogue – especially compared to that of Cruise.

“Jack Reacher” is as good as it needs to be, but unless you’re pining for a throwback actioner with more personality than action, it’s unlikely to bowl you over. There’s nothing subpar about it, but it’s missing anything to differentiate it from the spare parts its picked from other, better films. It’s worth seeing for some surprisingly solid laughs and a few well-choreographed set pieces, but you might leave the theater wondering why it exists at all. If McQuarrie is going to write and direct Mission: Impossible 5, as he’s signed on to do, he’ll have to bring far more creativity to the table. Action fans just won’t be satisfied with more of the same.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 21, 2012
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins, Alexia Fast, Robert Duvall, Jai Courtney, Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and some drug material)