In his 2005 novel One Shot, writer Lee Child lays out nine rules for surviving a five-against-one alley fight, a challenge his hero, the ex-Army cop Jack Reacher, is about to face. These include “Be on your feet and ready.” “Identify the ringleader.” “Don’t break the furniture.” Rule number nine is the most important: “Don’t run head-on into Jack Reacher. Not when he’s expecting it. It’s like running into an oak tree.”
As fans of Child’s 17 (and counting) Reacher novels know, the drifter hero is 6-foot-5, which means that to bring this oak of a man to life onscreen, the comparatively diminutive Tom Cruise (5-foot-7) would have to overcompensate with some serious tough-guy glowering. That was the expectation, anyway. Instead, when surrounded on a dark Pittsburgh street by five fools who have been paid a hundred bucks each to beat him bloody, Cruise’s Reacher gives a wry “you-asked-for-it” shrug, then puts the five down. Effortlessly. Convincingly. Cruise is definitely too short for the gig, but in this first fight, he proves his tough-guy chops. Outraged Reacher readers can stand down.
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (co-writer of The Usual Suspects), Jack Reacher opens as a sniper is setting up in a car garage directly opposite PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In a sequence that calls to mind the cold, heartless grace of a Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Dressed to Kill) set piece, we see what the killer sees, and wince as the rifle scope glides left, right, and then left again, as that killer chooses, seemingly at random, who will die. Six shots ring out; five humans fall.
James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a retired Army sniper, is quickly arrested, but won’t talk, except to scrawl three words on a sheet of paper: “Get Jack Reacher.” As the detective in charge (David Oyelowo) and the district attorney (Richard Jenkins) wonder aloud why Barr has asked for a former military policeman who has fallen off the grid, Reacher walks through the D.A.’s office door. This on-cue entrance is indicative of a jokey tone McQuarrie maintains throughout the film, as if to let us know that neither he nor Cruise are taking this lone hero stuff too seriously.
It turns out that Reacher despises Barr, but he can’t resist helping Barr’s idealistic defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike, aces). After retracing the killer’s steps, Reacher begins having doubts about Barr’s guilt, and once those five thugs come to beat him senseless, it’s clear that there’s a conspiracy afoot.
Just why the bad guys are doing what they’re doing remains a bit of a muddle at the end of Jack Reacher. Still, logic is rarely the point in movies like this (and the novels that inspire them). There’s much to enjoy here: a goofily funny hallway fight between Reacher and two thugs best described as “Dumb” and “Way Dumber”; the unlikely sight of revered film director Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn; Cave of Forgotten Dreams) portraying an evil villain who chewed off his own fingers in a Soviet Gulag. And there’s the clear delight passing between Cruise and his Days of Thunder co-star Robert Duvall, who ambles into the third act in time to keep McQuarrie’s relatively light touch from giving way to Reacher’s grim screw-the-courts brutality.
If none of that works for you, then obsess over the joy master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion) must have taken in bouncing light off Rosamund Pike’s resplendent blond hair. Should a beat-’em-up action flick be this beautiful? Follow the light, Jack; follow the light.