JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

To make an obvious point, it would have been better if the makers of this second movie based on Lee Child’s action-adventure books had simply followed the advice given in its subtitle. The novel on which its 2012 predecessor was based was “One Shot,” and it’s a pity that the mediocre “Jack Reacher” didn’t prove to be so.

Still, franchises are Hollywood’s bread and butter nowadays, so it’s not surprising that, despite the first movie’s lackluster reception, Tom Cruise has returned as the military cop turned investigator/vigilante. One person who doesn’t return is Christopher McQuarrie, who as screenwriter and director struggled to bring some suspense and energy to the clichés of the first film and pretty much failed. Still, he was a reasonable choice for an action movie; Edward Zwick isn’t. His direction is indifferent, bringing little pizzazz to the inevitable fights and chases, and he and his writing partner Marshall Herskovitz (working with Richard Wenk) do little to minimize the blandness of Child’s plot turns, which mirror those found in innumerable mediocre TV episodes.

To wit: after a prologue showing our hero’s very direct way of dealing with wayward authority figures, he reaches out, so to speak, to Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), his successor in the MP office in Washington, who has done him a favor, offering to take her out to dinner. When he arrives at her office, however, he finds that she’s been arrested on espionage charges, and takes it upon himself to clear her. Before long he’s accused of killing her military lawyer, and springs them both from a high-security military lockup, which sends the duo on a joint mission to identify the culprits who have framed them and the reason behind the scheme while evading capture by one of Turner’s aides, the scowling, Espin (Aldis Hodge), who barks out orders like “I want them found, yesterday!”

To make matters more complicated, Reacher is confronted by a narrative device more suitable for afternoon soap opera—the child he never knew he had. Turner’s surly replacement (Holt McCallany) informs Jack that a woman has named him in a paternity suit, and he seeks out the girl, Sam Dayton (Danika Yarosh), a tough-as-nails fifteen-year old who, by simple reason of their purported genetic relationship, also becomes a target of those who are now after him. In the final reel the picture sinks to one of the lowest possible levels, putting Sam in jeopardy as Reacher and Turner rush through the revelers in the streets of New Orleans to rescue her. (A rooftop chase and a bruising fistfight will top off the sequence.)

There’s never any doubt about who the villains are in this scenario. They’re revealed early on as employees of a military contract firm that’s been thrown off the Pentagon-approved payroll for malfeasance but have recently begun paying off their debts big-time. Where’s the cash flow coming from? Could it have something to do with the two investigators Turner had sent to Afghanistan, who wound up dead? You betcha, as our heroes’ interview with a junkie vet (Austin Hebert) will reveal. That will ultimately pit them against the company’s gloweringly sinister head, General Harkness (Robert Knepper) and his chief enforcer, known only as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), who’s been leading the small army of private henchmen that has been chasing them since their prison break. (The Hunter and his crew, incidentally, are all dressed in the fully black outfits that immediately identify them as bad guys. It’s as if their attire is intended to attract attention from anybody within eyeshot.)

It’s hard to imagine readers having been more than mildly taken with this plot when it was on the page, but transferred to the screen it has such a familiar ring that you might feel you’re watching another prosaic episode of the long-running “NCIS” franchise. Of course, those programs don’t have a star of Cruise’s caliber, but he’s hardly at his best here, coming across as overly solemn and inexpressive, not coming close to matching his work in the much more extravagant “Mission Impossible” films. Smulders is an up-and-coming talent, to be sure, but she’s sadly anonymous as Turner, while Yarosh works hard, especially in the chase scenes, but doesn’t make much of an impression either. The first “Reacher” picture boasted some top talent in the supporting cast—Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog—and though neither was employed to best advantage, they were at least interesting. By contrast Heusinger makes a boringly one-one menace, and Knepper is no better. Hodge is a standard-issue man of rigid principle.

Even technically “Never Go Back” seems commonplace. Oliver Wood’s camerawork is okay but nothing special, and Billy Weber’s editing allows many expository scenes to drag (although much of the sense of fatigue must be borne by Zwick and Cruise). The score by Henry Jackman, who’s been doing some interesting things of late, is disappointingly workmanlike.

In sum, it might be best for all concerned, on both sides of the screen, if Jack reaches a natural conclusion as a franchise hero with this movie. The advice to prospective viewers from this quarter is just to follow the first two words of the subtitle.