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JACK REACHER

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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.”

RED DAWN

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You might have thought it a foolish idea to make a contemporary version of John Milius’ campy 1984 movie about a bunch of kids who forge a resistance movement against a Russian takeover of the U.S. On the evidence of Dan Bradley’s “Red Dawn,” you’d have been right.

The world has changed over the past twenty-eight years, of course, and the thought of Soviet tanks and missiles no longer has quite the same fearful effect. So Bradley and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore preface their treatment with a montage of fake news reports detailing how international affairs have become increasingly chaotic and dangerous. None of it makes much sense, but it provides the basis for that fearful day when Spokane, Washington suddenly finds itself being taken over by paratroopers and other forces carrying the flag of North Korea—something else that doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, while most of the population is cowed into submission, a ragtag group of teens led by the police chief’s two sons, Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), an ex-Marine, and his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck), repair to a mountain cabin to form a resistance group they name after their high school football team, the Wolverines.

Before long our band of plucky fighters—which include callow Robert (Josh Hutcherson), the collaborationist mayor’s son Daryl (Connor Cruise) and Tori (Adrianne Palicki), who becomes Jed’s love interest—are killing North Korean occupiers, blowing up buildings, and taking aim at quislings, becoming local heroes who get help from courageous residents. There’s a subplot involving Matt’s eagerness to free his girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas), who was taken prisoner in the original assault, from her captors—which puts the whole crew in jeopardy—and a soap operatic thread involving Matt’s simmering anger toward Jed, who he believes abandoned him by joining the Corps right after their mother’s death, as well as a tragic moment involving their father (Brett Cullen).

But all that is just padding to the action sequences, which are relatively small-scaled due to the obviously meager budget but are given a kick by Mitchell Amundsen’s handheld camerawork and Richard Pearson’s hyperactive editing. In the last reel the plot deteriorates when an outside resistance fighter (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shows up to enlist the group in an assault on the North Korean headquarters to steal what becomes the plot’s MacGuffin—a suitcase containing some sort of radio code for the device that’s inhibiting the electrical grid and thereby preventing effective action against the invaders (or something like that). That leads to a shootout in hallways and control rooms that involves self-sacrifice and, at long last, a direct confrontation with Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee), the North Korean commander who’s long been bedeviled by the Wolverines.

“Red Dawn” isn’t much different from the numerous television shows that have been made on similar subjects, whether the idea involved invaders (either earthlings or aliens) or post-apocalyptic fascist locals—things like “V,” “Jericho” or the current “Revolution.” The acting is rudimentary, the dialogue flat, the dramatic situations banal and jingoistic. There is one interesting moment when Jed tells his fighters that their motivation is stronger than that of the occupiers, because they’re defending their homeland while the North Koreans are outsiders with no real stake in the place—a curious sentiment from a fellow supposedly just back from Iraq (and one which you have to wonder whether gung-ho viewers, who will certainly appreciate the script’s allusions to video games, will ruminate on). But basically this is straight-up action fare that never asks any questions beyond where the next round of ammunition is coming from, based on a premise even sillier today than it was a quarter-century ago.

The behind-the-scenes backdrop to “Red Dawn” is an interesting moviemaking footnote: the picture was actually shot three years ago, and then the invaders were depicted as Chinese. The bankruptcy of the original distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, put the picture on the shelf, and the makers decided to render it more marketable in today’s global environment by converting the Chinese to North Koreans—which required some reshooting but mostly dubbing dialogue and digitally altering such things as flags and uniforms. (The Russian advisors who are briefly glimpsed have been left untouched.) That background story, with its motivation not to antagonize the potential Chinese market, would actually make a better movie than the one that’s being released. But no such luck.