JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK. Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Patrick Heusinger, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Holt McCallany. Directed by Edward Zwick. 118 minutes. Rated M (Violence).
The first ‘Jack Reacher’ film was a surprising success when it arrived in 2012. Its action was lean and brutal, but its talented cast (including future stars Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo, plus a subtle turn from veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog as the villain) is what really elevated it above its peers in the action genre. When the studio slapped the misguided subtitle ‘Never Go Back’ on this sequel, they likely hoped they were presaging the film’s quality – ‘It’s called “Never Go Back”! It can’t go backwards!’ They were wrong; it’s not terrible, but it’s not good either. Some odd narrative choices serve to make Reacher somewhat toothless, and it just ends up feeling like an above average episode of ‘NCIS: New Orleans’ (never a good thing).
Our reintroduction to Reacher (Tom Cruise) exudes macho cool – he sits calmly at a classic American diner counter while incapacitated men lie strewn around the gravel carpark outside. It’s a strong start. The local sheriff and his deputy arrive on the scene and are quick to slap cuffs on him, before Reacher delivers his prediction that the sheriff will shortly be donning said cuffs for operating a people smuggling operation on army land. Lo and behold, a ringing payphone heralds the fulfilment of his prophecy. Reacher walks away a free man, and into a montage comprising hitchhiking the continent, doing good deeds outside the strict scope of the law, and exchanging information with Major Susan Turner (Colbie Smulders).
Reacher promises to take Turner, his long-time contact inside the Military Police Corps, out to dinner when he makes it to Washington. Upon his eventual arrival, he is told by a Colonel Morgan (Holt McCallany) that Turner has been arrested on espionage charges, shortly after two of her investigators were killed while looking into a dodgy operation handling the return of American weapons from the war in Afghanistan. Reacher smells something fishy in this dubiously close timing, and as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘the game is afoot!’
Reacher heads to Fort Dyer military prison, where Turner’s lawyer all but stonewalls him. While justifying why Reacher is not allowed to visit Turner behind bars, the lawyer pulls something out of Reacher’s old military file: a paternity suit pertaining to a young woman, whose mother claims Reacher was the father. This is news to Reacher, who leaves Fort Dyer to track down his supposed daughter, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who is somewhat of a drifter like himself. He deduces that he is being tailed by men working for a private military contractor called Paraforce, after he confronts two of them in trademark Reacher style i.e. cracking heads like it’s nobody’s business. The violence throughout the film is brutal, bone-crunching stuff, augmented by a viciously pared back sound design.
After Turner’s lawyer is tortured and killed by a mysterious assassin (Patrick Heusinger) and Reacher is arrested for his death, he busts out of Fort Dyer with Major Turner in tow. The assassin threatens Samantha, seemingly tying up loose ends from the suspicious U.S.-Afghan weapons case and hoping to provoke Reacher and Turner out of hiding. The pair make a detour to save her, before decamping to find a potential witness in New Orleans, the perfect locale for an ol’ fashioned showdown with their hunter and his shady employers.
Much of Reacher’s appeal in the source novels by author Lee Childs is his lack of baggage – he has no real family, few friends, little regard for his own preservation. There’s a freedom to this, but there is also a certain tragedy to his loneliness. In the first film, he leapt headlong into any fray with only a desire to see justice done motivating him. But here the screenplay from Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz saddles him with a kid and a close friend/possible romantic interest. This choice seems so counter to what makes the character interesting, and when the central mystery also turns out to be pretty pedestrian, there’s not much left for audiences to enjoy.
If the action was spectacular it may have made the journey worthwhile, but director Edward Zwick opts instead for competent but uninspired. Not even the usually reliable Tom Cruise can save it, having seemingly developed a tick in his jaw, which clenches and unclenches with alarming and distracting regularity. Colbie Smulders does her best in her first proper lead in a big-budget movie, and gets to air some interesting material about being a woman in a hyper-masculine military career, but she can’t save the whole movie. Not even a hero like Jack Reacher could pull off that impossible task.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 20.