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'Jack Reacher': Cruise control
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies

Who doesn't thrill to the notion of a righteous lone ranger wandering the back roads and alleys of America, beholden to no man, corporation or government? Such rootless isolatos are as old as James Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer, as urban as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, as modern as Lee Child's Jack Reacher, former Army cop, now one-man justice league. Adapting "One Shot," Child's ninth Reacher novel (he wrote 11), writer-director Christopher McQuarrie introduces the writer's modern-day Searcher to the screen sans fuss or mythic resonance. Tight and quick, often entertaining, "Jack Reacher" lacks nothing but juice -- the kind of high-octane cinematic fuel that turbocharged, say, Michael Mann's "Collateral."

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"Jack Reacher" starts in eerie silence, with a sniper in a parking garage using his scope rifle to track victims. (In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, it's especially chilling when the crosshairs lock on a young woman holding a child.) In short order, six are dead, apparently random targets. The perp, an Iraqi vet, is caught almost immediately but refuses to talk, apart from scribbling a note to "get Jack Reacher" (Tom Cruise). Nobody knows who or where this mystery man is -- but, ghost made flesh, the fellow's already on his way, by bus, to Pittsburgh, the scene of the crime.

Much of "One Shot" takes place inside Reacher's head as he methodically, without prejudice, thinks through what looks like an open-and-shut case. McQuarrie has deftly compressed the novel's early chapters, so that the stage is immediately set for Reacher's arrival, his reluctant enlistment by defense lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) and his subsequent plunge into a nonstop, action-packed quest for truth.

As Reacher, Cruise is in minimalist macho mode. Tight-lipped, steely-eyed, supremely arrogant, he personifies Child's limited notion of hero, no more and no less: "He never changes. He doesn't learn anything, because he knows it all from the beginning." The camera often turns on the axis of Reacher's gaze, as he susses out the lay of the land.

Standing in a high window, Reacher looks down on folks in adjacent windows, caught in cubicles, behind desks, at work, and delivers a jaundiced sermon: Having spent years fighting for something called freedom, he came home to get a firsthand taste, but soon discovered it was a mirage; witness the poor schlubs slaving away to pay bills, get ahead, ad nauseam. It's an unsavory scene, Cruise at his most supercilious, shot like some cynical Mephistopheles surveying contemptible humanity. 

In action, though, Cruise shines. Reacher's so good he predicts -- accurately -- the way his fights will go. Behind the wheel of a red 1970 Chevelle, its engine as throaty as a panther's growl, Reacher faces off with police detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), figuring out in seconds that he's a wanted man. McQuarrie cuts from car interior, thrumming with engine noise, to silent exterior and back again. Cop's hand curls into a fist; Reacher's hand punches the gearshift, launching a terrifically kinetic chase through Pittsburgh's alleyways and Allegheny River tunnel. Shooting from the Chevelle's hood, the camera frames Cruise up close and personal as he careens wildly into walls and other cars. The actor looks credibly focused, white-faced, adrenalized.

McQuarrie's collaborated with Cruise before, writing "Valkyrie" (2008) and script-doctoring "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2010), so he's used to making the actor top gun. Consequently, no fewer than three of Child's tough, high-powered female characters have been deleted from the movie. A couple of these ladies were Reacher lovers -- all females find Child's 6'5", 250-pound stud irresistible -- but each was feisty enough to steal scenes.

Left to carry the flag for the distaff sex, Pike is almost as opaque as Cruise's Reacher. Hard to tell what's going on in Helen Rodin's head, especially when it comes to her super-prickly relationship with Rodin (Richard Jenkins), big-shot D.A. and possible bad guy. Alternating between big-eyed shock and guess-what-I'm-feeling blankness, Pike delivers her lines with an oddly riveting stinginess that betrays her British origins. Neither a cinematic cipher nor a sexual pushover, Pike pretty much ignores Reacher's penchant for standing way too close, sometimes shirtless, "Rock of Ages"-style.

The nasty truth Reacher eventually digs up isn't all that shocking, or remarkable; it doesn't seem to warrant the convoluted conniving that sets the story in motion. Still, we get lots of creatively choreographed action -- and the welcome participation of two gratifyingly eccentric geezers. As "the Zec" ("prisoner"), survivor of Siberian gulags who once gnawed off his own frostbitten fingers, German director Werner Herzog incarnates dead-eyed evil. And Robert Duvall brings his usual folksy rectitude to the game, playing an aging Marine sharpshooter good enough -- and sufficiently ethical -- to substitute ricochets for kill shots in a firefight.

If Cruise's fantasy superhero garners as many staunch fans as Lee Child's novels, we may be witnessing the birth of a new franchise.

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Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.

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