Jack Reacher: Never Go Back Is a Model of Mindless Pulpy Action

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Photo: David James/Paramount Pictures

Given that Tom Cruise is of relatively small stature and that a defining element of Lee Child’s do-gooder killing machine Jack Reacher is that he’s six-foot-five, the second Cruise-Reacher outing is not bad at all. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a tight little thriller directed by Edward Zwick, who generally does highbrow projects but worked with Cruise on The Last Samurai and probably needed a commercial hit. The choice of this particular Child novel seemed odd, given that it’s one of the talkiest and the payoff is muted, but Zwick and his partner Marshall Hershkovitz (Richard Wenk also has screenplay credit) have changed the story and upped the number of kills. My hunch is that, like Nicholas Meyer with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, they pored over the Reacher canon to find the most Ur-Reacher moments and sprinkled them through the script. Although the reviews have been bad (there are people who think, inexplicably, that Christopher McQuarrie, the director of Jack Reacher, is a master of the genre), the movie is lighter, more fun, and ultimately more satisfying than its weighty predecessor.

Cruise’s stature is still a problem. (Child, who is tall, came up with his hero’s name after his wife said he could always get work in a grocery store as a “reacher.”) But he has made a smart choice: to do a lot of mugging. Normally that’s the opposite of what you’d want an actor to do, but Reacher is supposed to be one to three steps ahead of most of his adversaries. He’s supposed to look a bit outside and above the action. And egotism is easier for Cruise to project than braininess, since he’s the kind of actor who signals thought by creasing his brow. I even forgive his occasional Eastwood-like rasp.

The plot of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back has Reacher heading to Washington, D.C., to meet Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), a major (a military cop, as he was) with whom he has been having a professional but lively phone relationship. (This happened over several books but is here taken care of with a good, funny prologue.) When he arrives, he finds that she’s in jail on charges relating to the murders of two of her officers. You’d think she’d be delighted that the famous Jack Reacher would want to help exonerate her, but she’s too proud to be a damsel in distress. To bolster the case against her damselness, she breaks the neck of a very large man with what looks like pleasure. She’s a woman after Reacher’s heart.

Or should be. In the novels, Reacher has amazing sex — women are all over him, and he can’t say no — and, given that he has no job and no home, it made sense that he’d drift toward D.C. in the hope of a few killer nights. But Cruise’s Reacher is so far asexual, and you don’t feel the urgency for the two of them to fall into the sack. Instead, Zwick has beefed up the part of Samantha (Danika Yarosh), Reacher’s alleged teenage daughter by a woman he doesn’t remember but who filed a complaint against him for non-payment of child support. The girl has Reacher’s surliness and paranoia, so it’s possible. The point is that now he has someone else to save. Also, Yarosh gets a lot of lovable “Oh, Dad” shtick while Smulders has to stay poker-faced.

I’ll skip over the rest of the plot, which has elephantine absurdities, except to say that the filmmakers have concocted a counter-Reacher called the Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), a soldier who left the service but realized he “can never go back to the world.” (“Never go back” — get it?) Now he shoots and beats people to death for rich employers. Reacher picks up the Hunter’s tail, which isn’t too difficult since he’s dressed in black with black gloves and might as well be wearing a name tag saying, “Hello, my name is: ASSASSIN.” This is another of those movies in which the tough bad guy is always trying to tell the tough good guy how much alike they are so the good guy can say something to the effect that they’re nothing alike as he puts a spike through the bad guy’s neck or pushes him off a skyscraper.

Which is not what happens here. It’s mostly hand-to-hand. The fight scenes suffer from being shot too close, in the Bourne style, but they’re fast and high-impact and suggest Reacher’s talent for calculating his opponents’ moves before they’ve even decided what they’re going to do next. Never Go Back also corrects for what was missing from the first Jack Reacher film, which is the heart and soul of Child’s hero: his righteous sadism. Reacher sends no one to prison. And he doesn’t just like killing bad guys, he likes making them suffer as long as possible and taunting them before delivering the death blow. It’s amazing revenge porn, maybe the best in the pulp biz right now. It’s also, from a moral standpoint, appalling, and I can’t believe I keep reading Child’s books, some of them twice, especially the scenes where Reacher breaks someone’s bones while also identifying those bones for us. Anyway, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back has an excellent, cathartic killing with all four limbs broken and a final, orgasmic taunt. Maybe Cruise’s Reacher isn’t asexual after all.