Fanboy Flick Pick: Jack Reacher, Tonally Confused Creature

By Luke Y. Thompson in Movies
Friday, December 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Please note: the term "flick pick" is an acknowledgement of fandom interest and not necessarily an endorsement.

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As the more highbrow world debates the morality of how torture is depicted in a certain Oscar-bait film, the new Tom Cruise action-star vehicle presents us with a similar quandary - and the filmmakers too, judging by how quickly the premiere was cancelled in the wake of recent tragedy. We begin with a sniper picking off five seemingly random civilians; later in the story, we are made to hear their backstories and feel for them as fully dimensional people who can never realize their potential now.

So how to jell this with a scene where, in a confined bathroom, two criminal henchman try to beat Tom Cruise senseless, yet because of limited space and poor coordination, they end up repeatedly beaning each other with a crowbar and a baseball bat, Three Stooges style? The gunshots in Jack Reacher may be loud, echoing CRACKs like real life rather than Hollywood squibs, and the fights are made to feel brutally bone-crushing. But then come the wisecracks and the incongruent goofiness - are we meant to wince, or laugh? Because it would be brilliant if both were intended and both evinced, but the viewer gets the feeling of indecision here. This isn't a master of tone-straddling like Roman Polanski directing; it's Christopher McQuarrie, best known as screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, whose only other movie as director was the similarly confused Way of the Gun. Normally, it might be easy to take the moments of brutality with a grain of salt or four, but in the wake of a real-life shooting spree, a fake one is inherently less escapist. That's not the film's fault, entirely, but a clearer vision would not go amiss in any case.



Because we see the sniper right off the bat, we know the guy that actually gets caught and charged isn't really the one who did it. But after interrogation, and before being beaten into a coma by fellow detainees, he has only one request: get Jack Reacher. Reacher (Cruise) is one of those impossibly elite movie-hero guys who knows everything, so of course he shows up before anybody can be bothered to look. Even he is initially convinced of the perp's guilt, having known him as a trigger-happy sniper in wartime. But he agrees to help the defense, led by Helen (Rosamund Pike), the daughter of the rightfully confident D.A. (Richard Jenkins) who never fails to put people away. Massive conflict of interest in many ways, but hey, it amps up the drama. And even though the case seems airtight, and vast criminal forces are lined up to ensure it stays that way, Reacher must defy the odds and eventually prove that it was a frame-up. Essentially, then, this is like a sexier, more expensive episode of Matlock.

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I haven't read the books, but apparently Reacher is written as being 6'5", blond, and sparing in his speech - written by an Englishman named Jim Grant under the pseudonym of Lee Child, he sounds like a perception of the American tough guy as filtered through the works of fiction we send out into the world. He also sounds very little like the guy we see onscreen - short-statured Tom Cruise, who to his credit isn't trying to play taller with trick-photography, is constantly spouting to-the-point, tough-guy one-liners. In addition, he's a brilliant sleuth who uses scientific knowledge to calculate the most effective fighting strategies - think a cross between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr. version) and a younger Clint Eastwood. And he pulls it off: by the time he tells one particularly nasty fellow, "I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot!" we know he means it, and can deliver.
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It's a shame the foe he's up against doesn't really bring it like you think he would. Werner Herzog first appears to us as a nightmarish caricature, talking about biting off his own fingers to survive a Siberian gulag in a manner that recalls Saw's John Kramer - he even gives a potential victim a chance to save his life if he will similarly de-digitize himself. And then...Herzog doesn't show up again till the finale, during which he doesn't really do anything. Robert Duvall makes more of an impression in a late-in-the-film cameo as a shooting-range proprietor - it's the Days of Thunder reunion you probably didn't ask for, but should still enjoy! As does a cute young lady named Alexia Fast, playing the bad-but-wants-to-be-good girl caught between Reacher and the local thugs - she looks like a cross between Jessica Alba and Brittany Murphy, which means I'd lay odds she'll be in a Robert Rodriguez movie soon (hey if, Shellie's needed for Sin City 2, it actually could work)
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So Jack Reacher isn't perfect ["It's a REACHER for the stars!" - some critic I just made up], but with Clint Eastwood too old for this stuff now, a reminder of this kind of thing isn't bad, and the timing is canny - with his recent divorce, there is a public perception of Tom Cruise as a bit of a crazy loner. Why not milk that?

Jack Reacher opens today - all images courtesy of the official Jack Reacher movie's Facebook page

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