Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

2018 #38
Edward Zwick | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

It’d take a braver man than me to name a sequel Never Go Back; doubly so a sequel to a film that garnered an at-best mixed reception; triply so a sequel to an adaptation whose star was vocally and unrelentingly regarded as being terribly miscast by the book’s own fans. But Jack Reacher star — and, more importantly, producer — Tom Cruise is the kind of man who jumps out of planes all day every day for weeks on end merely to capture one relatively minor sequence in a film, so I think we can safely say he’s a much braver man than me.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a former military police officer turned drifter — why he quit and why he hasn’t settled down like a normal person is probably explained somewhere, but I can’t remember. Naturally, as he drifts around the US he keeps finding himself involved in escapades — there wouldn’t be stories worth telling otherwise, would there? In this one, one of Reacher’s friends, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), is arrested for espionage. Reacher is certain she’s being framed, and his investigations lead to him being set up too. As the pair go on the run to uncover a conspiracy and clear their names, there’s the added complication of having to protect teenager Samantha Dutton (Danika Yarosh), who may be Reacher’s daughter.

What plays out is a solid plot, smattered with decent action sequences. Frankly, it’s nothing incredible, and you’d have reason to expect more distinctive work from a director of the calibre of Edward Zwick (helmer of well-regarded films like Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond), but it’s still a good action-thriller.

Cruise in for a bruisin'

In the title role, Cruise is good. It’s different to his usual routine — the familiar grinning charm is dialled way down, in order to facilitate Reacher’s trademark stoicism — but he’s got a charismatic enough presence that he remains an engaging lead even without it. Smulders and Yarosh also acquit themselves well. Together, the trio make for a neat de facto family. Once they’ve been brought together, the way they move through the narrative as a unit gives the film a different vibe from the “lone hero” thing you’d expect. Unfortunately, the bad guys are as bland as anything. It lacks even one really good villain, which is an especially noticeable problem after the first film had Werner bleedin’ Herzog to chew up the scenery.

The title Never Go Back became a truism for some observers, because the film was not a success, either with critics (38% on Rotten Tomatoes) or at the box office (just $58.7 million in the US, though it drummed up a solid $162 million worldwide). Part of that is Reacher fans’ enduring dislike for Cruise’s casting. When they were bemoaning it before the first film’s release, I thought it was probably a storm in a teacup; that they’d get used to him over time. I mean, their sole objection seemed to be that he was too short, and how important was that, really? Incredibly important, apparently, because six years and two films later they still really, really hate him in the role. (Personally, I think him being a bit of a short-arse suits the characterisation better. Reacher seems to be a guy who gets underestimated; you don’t underestimate someone who walks in with the bulk of, say, Arnie. But then I’ve never read the books, so I may be wrong about this somehow.)

A woman's place is in the kitchen

Fans are one thing, but what put wider audiences off? Maybe it was just the poor reviews. Producer Christopher McQuarrie (who directed the first one, but was too busy on Mission: Impossible to return for the sequel) thinks one problem was they adapted the wrong book. I believe I saw him talk about this on Twitter, which means his comments can’t be referenced (because his tweets self-destruct), but if I remember correctly he didn’t say it was a bad novel, just that it didn’t work when placed as the second in the series. He speculated that more films were needed to establish Reacher’s character and world before they told this particular story. I tend to agree. For one thing, the film has to resort to an early montage to show Reacher and Turner’s friendship growing, which could’ve been more naturally handled by spreading it over a film or two. I think the possibility of Reacher having a kid would also carry greater weight if we were more familiar with the character from multiple adventures.

Well, it’s all academic now, given the film series is most likely over: just this week, creator Lee Child announced he intends to take the rights to TV, primarily to cast a more faithful actor after those continuing complaints about Cruise. It’ll be interesting to see if it really does make a difference having a taller actor in the role. Somehow, I suspect not. Child also said he’s aiming for the mooted series to adapt one book per 10-12 episode season. Considering he’s written 22 books already, I wonder if he believes they’ll ever get through them all…

“Sorry son, you just don't measure up.”

Hopefully whatever they do works, because I’ve enjoyed these Reacher films so far. Never Go Back may not be all it could be, but it’s not so poor as to merit abandoning the film series entirely — it’s above average rather than exceptional (my score errs on the harsh side, in part to differentiate it from the superior first movie). It’d be a shame to see the films tossed aside for something lesser.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. It’s also available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Jack Reacher (2012)

2013 #70
Christopher McQuarrie | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Jack ReacherI don’t like Lee Child. I’ve never read one of his novels, but I’ve read and seen interviews with him, and always felt he comes across as intensely pompous and irritating. I disclose this up front because it leaves me predisposed to dislike Jack Reacher, the first (they hope) movie adaptation from Child’s series of novels starring ex-military policeman and now all-purpose vigilante Jack (you guessed it) Reacher.

They’ve presumably gone down the name-as-title route for brand recognition value; plus to give them the choice to call the sequel simply Jack Reacher 2, because, as we all know, a series needs the same umbrella title on every entry to succeed — just look at the billion-dollar earnings of James Bond 23. (Oh wait, no.) The film is actually adapted from Child’s ninth Reacher tome, One Shot, which concerns a retired sniper who kills five civilians with six shots. When arrested, all he says is, “get Jack Reacher”. But Reacher isn’t his friend — thanks to past crimes, Reacher wants to see the man go down. But only if he’s actually guilty…

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, and The Wolverine script that Darren Aronofsky loved but James Mangold clearly felt could be improved(!)) has delivered an enthralling action-thriller with an unusual-these-days emphasis on the thriller part. There’s still a well-executed car chase, an epic punchy-shooty climax, and the odd spot of running and fighting along the way, but primarily this is a mystery that our heroes must wind their way through. It’s an intriguing yarn, which unfurls neatly to a largely satisfying climax. Say hello to my little friend, said RosamundHow much you consider the twists to be twisty will depend on which suspects your guesswork picks out, but in that regard it’s as strong as other similar genre examples.

Whether Cruise is a good fit for the literary Reacher (“literary” is a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?) I don’t know, but he’s as likeable a leading man as ever (i.e. if you don’t like him normally, this won’t change your mind), albeit a little terser than usual. I’d happily watch a sequel, let’s put it that way, and I’m very nearly tempted to pick up one of the books. There’s strong support from Rosamund Pike as the accused’s legal defender, and an array of fun cameo-sized supporting roles, which you may have heard about but, in case you haven’t, I shan’t spoil. (I mean, their names are on the poster, but I’d somehow missed that.)

A general apathy from cinema audiences (read: low box office) and Child’s fans declaiming Cruise’s casting (he’s far too short) may have led to the impression that Jack Reacher was a mediocre offering. Happily, that’s not the case. If anything, it’s underrated — the final product is a classily-made thriller that merits your time.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.