“Jack Reacher” is based on the novel “One Shot” by Lee Child, one of seventeen novels in this immensely popular series. This first screen adaptation is handled by veteran screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who doubles as director. Also performing double duty is Tom Cruise as producer and star in the title role. Both men have been in Oscar competition, but for distinctly different film genres than this. “Reacher” is pretty formulaic, something of an anomaly in this season of Big Serious Movies.
Child’s knight errant is a laconic, 6’5” bruiser; Cruise reaches 5’7” and his Reacher is a ready man with a one-liner. Many of these are fielded by Rosamund Pike as the defense attorney who hires the ex-Army cop as her investigator in an apparently hopeless case. She’s trying to save the life of a former Army sniper who has allegedly gunned down five people at random on a Pittsburgh river walk. To make her task more daunting, her father (played by Richard Jenkins) is the D.A. whom she must face in court, and the lead detective (David Oyelowo) is absolutely sure they have the right guy. Hey, the cops even found his prints on a quarter in the parking meter near where he allegedly positioned himself to start killing his victims.
Reacher has a history with the accused, but he’s not a friend. In fact, though he has come at the sniper’s request, his commitment is to justice—which will not necessarily help the alleged killer. Sharp-eyed investigator that he is, Reacher soon spots some holes in the prosecution’s apparently airtight case, the evidence for which is a shade too perfect. (There are also some major holes in the movie’s plot, but classical film this ain’t, folks.) When he starts poking around the grittier locales of the (formerly) Iron City, he gets set upon by thugs, leading to a couple of fight scenes and a car chase, adroitly realized by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
The latter is enlivened by the appearance of director Werner Herzog as a really nasty villain and Robert Duvall in his gruff old vet mode. McQuarrie lapses too often into cinematic clichés, both verbal and visual, so these two are welcome touches of class. Reacher himself is a familiar screen figure: think Shane or Paladin, if you are of a certain age, or even Dirty Harry if you’re a tad younger. Cruise does well enough to establish a potential alternative to his “Mission Impossible” franchise, though this one will not add to his Oscar nominations.
Rated “PG-13” for some pretty grisly violence and occasional profanity, “Jack Reacher” had to cancel its Pittsburgh premiere, scheduled for the day after the shooting of elementary school students in Connecticut. Doubtless, it is part of the general acceptance, not to say glorification, of violence that infects contemporary American culture. It is also fantasy, so whether it inspires people to go on killing rampages is problematical. Still, I can’t recommend it for young people: I’d recommend their parents guide them to more age-appropriate entertainment, of which there is plenty around in this yuletide season.