Here are the things you need to know about the character Jack Reacher: He stands at six feet, five inches tall and weighs roughly 250 pounds. He is an ex-military police officer who now drifts across the country, stumbling across small-town problems (an unsolved murder, a kidnapping). Typically he will do what he can to restore order and pursue justice and one time he survived getting shot directly in the chest because he’s so jacked that his muscles stopped the bullet. Jack Reacher is a sparse man with a sparse wardrobe, largely assembled from Goodwills and community thrift stores, picking up what he needs as he finds himself needing it and discarding it when it has outlived its usefulness to him, and in case you skimmed past the prior sentence I’ll say one more time that Jack Reacher is so big that one time his muscles stopped a bullet.
You could be forgiven for reading this description and not immediately thinking of Tom Cruise, a man famously 5’7” on a good day. And yet Cruise took on the role of that beefcake drifter in 2012, garnering vocal outcry from the Jack Reacher fan community (largely comprised of dads, a group who famously refuse to waver in their opinions on the most trivial of matters like, for example, who should play the fictional character Jack Reacher). “He is a terrible match for the character,” Jack Reacher fans insisted. “There is no way Tom Cruise’s chest could stop a bullet fired at point blank range and also he is very short.”
With respect for the Jack Reacher stans, I would posit this: Cruise’s physique is a valid reason to knock his casting but not a valid reason to dismiss the film outright, which holds tremendous merit even if its lead actor doesn’t have pecs dense enough to serve as Kevlar. There are two reasons for this, one being that Thomas Cruise Mapother IV is one of the great movie stars of all time who can bring things to a performance that no 6’5”, 250-pound beefcake who played Aquaman on Smallville can. The second is that Jack Reacher marks the first director-actor collaboration between Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie, a collaboration that has yielded what the kids might call “bangers only.”
McQuarrie first rose to fame as the writer of The Usual Suspects, though after his disastrous directorial debut, The Way of the Gun (it’s bad, and not even in a fun way), he was put in what he long referred to as “director jail.” He returned to his work as a screenwriter and first crossed paths with Cruise during the making of the 2008 film Valkyrie. The film is one of the great missteps in Cruise’s career and had a notoriously troubled production, though amid that chaos Cruise and McQuarrie seem to have found in one another kindred collaborative spirits.
Cruise’s production company Cruise/Wagner Productions acquired the film rights to Jack Reacher back in 2005. The project lingered in limbo for a few years, finally getting a kickstart when McQuarrie was hired to revise the script, an adaptation of the ninth Reacher novel, One Shot. It went into production at a pivotal moment in Cruise’s career as well as McQuarrie’s. For Cruise, his star power — which had fallen substantially in the years following his couch-jumping, histrionic 2005 (an all-time bad PR year for any celebrity) — no longer guaranteed a movie would be a hit. Cruise rethought his approach to blockbuster filmmaking accordingly for Jack Reacher. No longer able to approach every project with a blank check, he agreed to a scaled-down production budget of $60 million. The lower budget made the project an enticing get for a studio — a Cruise movie still had the potential to be a massive hit and this one came with substantially lower risk. It also allowed Cruise some more freedom in his producer responsibilities, such as putting the film’s creative team together. He used that leverage to break McQuarrie out of director jail and put him behind the camera once again.
It proved a savvy move. Whatever Cruise’s physique prevents him from bringing to the role of Jack Reacher — though his performance is as locked in as ever, all simmering rage and gritted jaws and rarely ever smiling — McQuarrie’s script and directing make up for in spades. Jack Reacher is a down-the-middle adult thriller directed with a Hitchcockian eye, meticulously composed and paced with an attention to detail rare in this sort of film. Like all great mysteries, every answer to the questions the audience will spend the film asking is present in the opening set piece.
Speaking of which, an entire essay could be dedicated to the first 12 minutes alone. The film’s opening is dialogue free, with nearly ten minutes of relative silence as McQuarrie walks us through the film’s inciting incident: a mass shooting carried out by a sniper played by Jai Courtney, a man studios have been insisting for years is America’s sweetheart (he is, to his credit, doing the best work of his career in this movie). From here we see, in a VERY deliberately staged series of shots, the subsequent police investigation leading to the arrest of a man pointedly not played by Jai Courtney. At the 8:20 mark the first lines of dialogue are recited and one minute and 22 seconds later our protagonist’s presence is first made known.
It begins with a note written by a murder suspect on a legal pad (“GET JACK REACHER,” which is an incredibly rad way to introduce a character named Jack Reacher) followed by the district attorney (Richard Jenkins) and the police detective in charge of the case (David Oyewolo) going over every piece of information they can find on this off-the-grid drifter. By the time Cruise makes his entrance at the film’s 12-minute mark, McQuarrie has so deftly established the legend of Jack Reacher it’s irrelevant that the man who walks through the DA’s office door isn’t 6’5” and 250 pounds; it doesn’t matter because the man who walks through that door is Jack Reacher and the viewer now knows exactly who that is.
To recount the film’s plot from here feels unnecessary (though in case it isn’t, the short of it is that Reacher and James Barr, the man set up to take the fall for the shooting, have a shady history and Reacher is begrudgingly charged with figuring out whether or not Barr is responsible — which Reacher spends most of the movie certain he is). It is a well-plotted mystery thriller but nothing extraordinary on its own. What is extraordinary is everything else about it, from DP Caleb Deschanel’s work behind the camera (the way that he stages the aforementioned shooting through the scope of the sniper’s rifle is inspired) to a stacked cast that includes everyone from Werner Herzog to Robert Duvall. Jack Reacher does everything a movie of its kind is supposed to do, only it does it 10 to 20 percent better than necessary.
A couple of months into Jack Reacher’s production, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol hit theaters, proving a smash hit and grossing nearly $700 million worldwide. It began the long process of restoring Cruise’s star status to its former glory and, crucially, gave the franchise a second wind (before McQuarrie’s uncredited rewrites on the script, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt was rumored to be phased out in favor of a new star, Jeremy Renner). With a fifth Cruise-fronted M:I now on the table, McQuarrie stepped in as the franchise’s next director and, in an unprecedented turn of events, stuck around for the next three sequels (2018’s Fallout and Dead Reckoning, Parts One and Two, which are currently in production), making him the only director to have helmed more than one film in the franchise.
Cruise and McQuarrie’s partnership has now been going strong for nearly 15 years. The latter is responsible for some of the best work of Cruise’s late-stage career, and the former got McQuarrie what’s now clearly a much-deserved second chance as a director. Neither would be where they are now without the other, or without a 6’5”, 250-pound ex-military drifter whose pecs are so big they have rendered him immune to bullets.
Jack Reacher is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.