The hero—antihero, if you prefer—of this action flick based on one of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child was, from the description on the printed page, somebody who might have been played by a young Dolph Lundgren—a tall, very brawny as well as brainy bruiser. Christopher McQuarrie’s adaptation stars Tom Cruise, who—let’s face it—doesn’t exactly fit that bill. The discrepancy, however, isn’t the fundamental reason that “Jack Reacher” turns out to be pretty much a bummer. Cruise gives the character the purse-lipped, athletic demeanor he’s brought to lots of action movies before, with generally satisfactory results. You might or might not find him credible as the ex-MP turned master investigator and vigilante who, in the present instance, metes out his own brand of justice to a sniper who’s gunned down five people—and to the sinister people behind his dastardly act. But in either case he’s stuck in a picture that’s very dumb and surprisingly lethargic.
It begins with that sniper attack—which, we see very clearly, was carried out by a steely-eyed Charlie (Jai Courtney). But the cops, led by Emerson (David Oyelowo), arrest ex-army shooter Barr (Joseph Sikora) for the crime, and DA Rodin (Richard Jenkins) accepts the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, despite the fact that his daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike) is the fellow’s defense counsel. Barr denies the charge, and can only ask for a guy named Jack Reacher before he’s put into a coma by fellow prisoners.
The mysterious Reacher shows up and is persuaded by Helen to investigate the case even though he despises Barr—a fellow whom he proved guilty of a massacre during his military days but who escaped punishment. But when pressure is put on him to leave town, he becomes convinced that Barr is being used as a patsy and plows through every obstacle to prove it and unmask the real culprits. In the process he will have to beat up a passel of bad guys, avoid the cops and even rescue Helen, who’s been taken prisoner by the conspirators.
Cruise does his job intensely enough, but he’s hobbled by the fact that the script fashioned by McQuarrie from Child’s book is simple-minded and silly. (Spoiler alert: you might not want to read beyond this point.) It’s predicated on one of the oldest dodges in the mystery writer’s handbook, covering up one murder by camouflaging it with others. In itself that’s not a terrible thing, but it becomes so when what the killing is concealing turns out to be one of the most absurd schemes you’re ever likely to encounter. (When Helen lays it out for her father, Pike and Jenkins look embarrassed to be playing the scene, especially since Jenkins is required—rightly—to pronounce it ridiculous.) And McQuarrie is so intent on strewing the ground with red herrings that eventually everyone becomes a suspect—though we’re shown early on that the ultimate villain is a disfigured guy who calls himself The Zek (Werner Herzog), whose motivation, when gradually revealed, turns out to be just amorphous malice.
It’s hard to understand why such a clumsy collection of genre cliches—which includes the ultimate idiocy, when the hero who’s cornered his enemy tosses away his weapon to take his foe on mano-a-mano) would have attracted McQuarrie’s interest (he is, after all, the fellow who penned “The Usual Suspects,” one of the cleverest scripts imaginable) or why the script piqued the interest of Cruise, who’s usually pretty astute in his choice of material. Perhaps it was the chance for a reunion with Robert Duvall, who—in his familiar smiling-crotchety style—plays the cranky gun-range owner who becomes Reacher’s ally in the uncomfortably jocular final confrontation.
In any event, whatever pleasure one might have in seeing Cruise and Duvall together again is diminished not merely by the inane plot but by McQuarrie’s solemn direction. The picture contains any number of martial-arts type fistfights, the requisite car chase, and a finale filled with gunfire and punches, but it’s mostly a strangely dull, plodding affair marked by entirely too many scenes filled with stilted dialogue played as though it was of Shakespearean import. The few genuinely amusing lines die in the company of the rest.
Under the circumstances the supporting cast looks understandably uncomfortable, with Pike and Oyelowo coming off only slightly better than Jenkins, who appears to want to crawl into a hole during every scene. Courtney makes a steely-eyed villain, but Herzog proves he should stay on the other side of the camera as the grotesque Zek. And Sikora has to play a dreadful final scene as the remorseful sniper. The picture is technically better than the script deserves, with veteran Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography especially effective (though Joe Kraemer’s music score is completely unmemorable).
Maybe Cruise and Paramount thought that “Jack Reacher” might be a franchise in the making, a replacement for the “Mission Impossible” series that’s getting tired. But the title of the book by Child that spawned the picture will doubtlessly prove prophetic. It’s “One Shot.”