Jack Reacher: too important for his own good

With all the focus on Tom Cruise’s character, the stakes in this sequel never get high enough to make us care

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (Edward Zwick). 118 minutes. Opens Friday (October 21). See Listings. Rating: NN

There’s something about the role of Jack Reacher that brings out the worst in Tom Cruise. I can understand why he’s attracted to it: the hero of Lee Child’s books is a super-competent man of action who thinks and acts faster than anyone else, is never wrong about anything and has a fondness for hitchhiking and roadside diners, because he’s just a regular guy at heart.

A working-class superhero, is Jack Reacher, and there’s probably some appeal there for Cruise, but the role only brings out his worst instincts. The literary version of Jack Reacher is a mountain of a man who intimidates people just by being in the same room with them, commanding respect well before he starts knocking skulls. Cruise affects the swagger of a man who knows he’s always in charge of the situation, but more often than not it just makes him look like a dick.

At least in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, someone’s willing to call him on it. That’s Major Susan Turner, a colleague whose sudden arrest on espionage charges motivates Reacher to rescue her and expose a massive conspiracy within the U.S. military’s efforts in Afghanistan – which in this movie involves running around Washington and New Orleans, staying a step ahead of a creepy assassin (Patrick Heusinger) who’s looking to tie up any loose ends.

Turner is quickly established as Reacher’s equal – she’s occupying his old position in military police, she’s a capable fighter and a quick thinker, and Cobie Smulders plays her as someone who’s not used to needing to be rescued, which is an interesting take. Even when she finds herself on the run with Reacher, she’s not a damsel in distress: she’s pissed off that she’s perceived as being in distress.

Having established her own action bona fides in several Marvel movies as the no-bullshit SHIELD agent Maria Hill, Smulders is perfectly convincing here – but since the concept of a Jack Reacher story is that Jack Reacher is always smarter, tougher and better than everyone else, Major Turner winds up playing second fiddle to the star, either a few steps behind in the chases or stuck in a hotel with the kid.

Right, the kid. Another subplot of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is that Reacher learns he’s been named in a paternity suit by a woman he can’t really remember, and that the woman’s teenage daughter Samantha (Danika Yarosh) may be his. Once the bad guys realize she’s someone Reacher might care about, Samantha becomes a target too, and the three fugitives have to hide out together.

This is as close as Jack Reacher: Never Go Back comes to having a good idea. Samantha carries herself with the self-confidence and arrogance of a normal teenager, and there’s genuine potential in the idea of Reacher, Turner and Samantha – all type-A characters who need to be the smartest person in the room – stuck with each other, trying to work on strategy and tactics. But once again, the dynamics of the story need Reacher to come out on top every time.

It’s frustrating to see Never Go Back get itself trapped this way, especially since Cruise’s last Mission: Impossible movie took real pleasure in introducing Rebecca Ferguson as a mystery woman who was not just Ethan Hunt’s equal, but the equal of everyone else on his team.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back can’t help but feel like Cruise’s reconsideration of that choice: here, he gets to be the best, sharpest and most moral person in the world, and everything in the movie is designed to support him. That means there are no real stakes and no real payoffs, and the outcome is never in doubt.

Edward Zwick’s direction is perfunctory at best, with none of the style or subtlety of his previous Cruise collaboration, The Last Samurai – you’d never know it was the same guy. But maybe that’s the point. Jack Reacher is a movie that’s exclusively about how awesome Tom Cruise is there’s no reason for anyone else to try to shine.

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