Jack Reacher is a pulp B-movie made with an A-list cast and crew. Made with precision, the film bobs and weaves through its overly complicated plot, but it’s never so complex that we feel lost or confused. Rated PG-13, the filmmakers cleverly utilized sexual tension and quick brute violence in such a way as to make the tension sizzle at an audience-appropriate temperature.
Picture this: A man guns down five innocent civilians from a Pittsburg parking garage. A suspect is identified, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), and apprehended. The detective asks for a confession, and the man writes down, “Get me Jack Reacher.”
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, Jack Reacher is an endlessly entertaining and rewatchable action movie with more wit than we’re used to. Based on the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, One Shot specifically, McQuarrie gives us part neo-noir, part action, part thriller, all perfectly measured. Part of the movie’s surprise is not just how fun it is but how well it’s made.
Roughly the first ten minutes of Jack Reacher is without any dialogue. Instead, McQuarrie uses Caleb Deschanel’s camera to tell his story. That may sound redundant; after all, that’s what the camera is supposed to do. But most action movies, or at least most movies like Jack Reacher, use the camera as a recording device.
McQuarrie and Deschanel are doing something more, not with stylistic edits and camera setups, but good old-fashioned storytelling. In other words, part of the reason Jack Reacher is remarkable is that it’s a well-made film. Jack Reacher is the type of movie that would probably be fun no matter who made it, but McQuarrie and Deschanel draw us in and give us the information while also making sure certain dialogue scenes don’t come off as stilted.
It also helps that Tom Cruise as Reacher is an inspired casting choice. In the books, Recher is a behemoth of a man, seemingly more suited to be played by Dolph Lundgren than Tom Cruise. But Cruise sells the most critical aspect of Reacher, his iron will and cool intellect.
The dialogue in Jack Reacher shows the brilliance of Lee Child’s writing paired with old-school Hollywood wit. Take the scene early on where District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins) talks with Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo). It’s an info dump scene, a scene that exists purely to set up our main character. Except, McQuarrie does it with a smirk but never in a winking way.
Emerson and Oyelowo banter back and forth but do so in a way that feels natural while also letting us know how accomplished and mysterious Reacher is. The scene culminates in one of my favorite character entrances ever, where Rodin asks how one even finds Reacher. Emerson says, “My guess is you don’t. He finds you.” The two are interrupted by Rodin’s secretary telling them, “A Mister Reacher is here to see you.”
We meet James Barr’s attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), in the following scene. Reacher notices the last name and correctly pins her as the D.A.’s daughter. Emerson then leaves with a terrificly honest line of, “Reacher, weird meeting you.” Reacher shakes his hand, “Likewise.” The scene is of emblematic of what makes Jack Reacher so much fun to watch.
McQuarrie understands, much like Child, that Reacher as a concept, while undeniably cool, is also a little silly. He leans into that but never in a way where the characters aim for any level of camp. Instead, he acknowledges the obvious from time to time and lets the matter rest.
Jack Reacher is funny, which sounds weird to say. Most action movies have cornball one-liners and over-the-top action scenes. But part of the charm of the books and the film is how the humor comes from the situations. Whether it’s the clever way, Reacher tells his opponent how the fight will go down to Reacher fighting two big guys in a small bathroom and being saved by the small space and cheap plaster.
The big bad is a mysterious man who lives in the shadows, known only as the Zek, played by famous German auteur Wener Herzog. Herzog’s appearance is a scream simply because of all the people you expect to see playing the bad guy, you simply don’t expect Werner Herzog. But it works, partly because the Zek is a character that, when you think about it, is a dark version of the persona that Herzog has crafted for himself. He is soft-spoken, bafflingly existential, and eerie in his commitment to his craft. That Jai Courtney plays his right-hand man is even better.
But the star of the movie is undoubtedly Tom Cruise. His Reacher stalks onto the screen and commands our attention for the next two hours. It is a reminder that Cruise is more than a movie star, he’s also a good actor. His Reacher never reacts the way we think he might.
Of course, that’s Jack Reacher. McQuarrie subverts expectations constantly, leaning into some tropes while smashing others. Moments such as when Reacher calls Helen and hears that the Zek has kidnapped her. As Courtney gives his speech, Reacher hangs up. Then he calls back and hangs up. It’s funny but exciting because we’re not used to a character messing with such a time-honored tradition as the bad guy calling the good guy.
Then there’s Sandy (Alexia Fast), a young girl hired by one of the locals to lure Reacher into a fight. Reacher handily wins the battle and later hunts down Sandy. Fast plays Sandy with a sort of winsome vulnerability, a girl who doesn’t know what she wants. She offers herself to Reacher, causing him to sigh and hang his head in exasperation.
There’s a lot of sexual tension, and McQuarrie pushes what he can for the film’s rating. Pike and Cruise have taut chemistry, but at no point does it ever seem as if they will ever get together. Pike’s Helen is just in awe of Reacher, the man and his physique. For her part, Pike makes Helen something more than a love interest as the idealist crusading against her father.
She and Jenkins share only a couple of scenes, but we get a sense that the father-daughter relationship has been strained for a while. They never delve into it; Jack Reacher isn’t a movie where anything that happened before the film started matters that much. Or if it does, only in how it directly pertains to the case at hand.
The film bombed domestically upon its release because it had the bad luck to open up shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. The opening scene has a man opening fire at five innocent people — one of whom was a child. So it’s not a shock that people weren’t interested in an action movie of any sort shortly after that horrific incident, let alone Jack Reacher.
Yet, globally the film made enough money for a sequel, Never Go Back. Unfortunately, the sequel is everything that Jack Reacher is not. The sequel shows how dull and rote Jack Reacher could have been and how much McQuarrie’s direction was crucial for making Reacher work.
Jack Reacher is a shiny, lean action machine. However, McQuarrie stages the action in a fun and easy way to follow while also never being boring. By the end, we’re left satisfied and hungry for more, even if, in hindsight, we should have been maybe just been happy with what we got.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures
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