Jack Reacher is a sharp-shooting, hard-hitting, trash-talking Army cop turned knight-errant drifter, who chooses his destination one pension withdrawal at a time. A one-man A-Team, Reacher is capable of violence with which to clean up the dirty deeds that always find him, but that’s a last-resort lingua franca. When stomped faces or snapped fingers are the only resolution, Reacher finds a bit of regret in that.

Fans of author Lee Child’s creation whined about 5’7” Tom Cruise playing Reacher, who’s cast a barrel-chested, 6’5” shadow over 17 published works — including One Shot, the 2005 novel on which 2012’s Jack Reacher is based.

Let them grouse. Cruise is unequivocally successful in the part, owing less to physical stature than a wholly entertaining embodiment of Reacher’s attitude. Cruise seizes on a calculated mix of alertness and aloofness, a silver-tongued, world-weary guy who can dispense both withering putdowns and walloping beatdowns.

Yes, “Jack Reacher” was another top-flight choice for Cruise this decade that was met with relative indifference stateside. Set aside Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and not one Cruise film since 2010 has topped $100 million domestically, even though all of them (the loopy spin on his very public eccentricity in Knight & Day, his committed comedic-character work in Rock of Ages and the square-jawed, but bedeviled, hero of Oblivion) feature him in fine form. 

Of them all, Reacher’s failure to ignite is the saddest. To be fair, to those unfamiliar with the books, the title might sound like a cheesy porn-star name. But it’s exactly a well-paced, whip-smart thriller everyone bemoans a lack of but rarely pays to see.

And while it may turn out to be less of a new Cruise franchise than Oscar-winning writer / director Christopher McQuarrie’s (The Usual Suspects) audition reel for a fifth Mission: Impossible film, it proved to be one of 2012’s best mainstream efforts.

McQuarrie’s willfully perverse choices are powerfully effective from the get-go. The first eight minutes pass without dialogue. None of the major action sequences is set to rah-rah music (although composer Joe Kraemer’s work establishes maximal heroism with minimal fanfare). A curb-hopping, fender-smashing, paint-trading humdinger of a car chase pauses when Reacher’s appropriated Chevelle stalls out.

Plus, the big bad is played by, of all people, Werner Herzog, a German director and documentarian usually heard reciting soliloquies about cave paintings, not chilling descriptions of harsh Siberian imprisonment. (Herzog may have 10 lines, but he’s as icy-veined frightening as Hannibal Lecter, and his rheumy eye and Teutonic cadence menacingly loom over the entire film.)

As he did in his underappreciated, long-ago directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, McQuarrie prefers emotional engagement to artificial excitement. Similarly, Jack Reacher is an invigorating work that doesn’t feel compelled to scratch an itch for violence at every turn.

Reacher turns up in Pittsburgh after seeing a news story about James Barr, a former Army sniper arrested for gunning down five random citizens in cold blood. Reacher has seen Barr in action before, having drawn a confession for a wartime shooting from him in the past. And although he initially intends to “bury” Barr as a character witness, Reacher’s astute and acute examination of the evidence unveils a thick conspiracy.

To reveal more would disserve the numerous page-turning pleasures. Just know that no fingernail can pry the floorboards of this tightly plotted mystery. Plus, with character work this strong, even in minor roles, you won’t be bored enough to try.

McQuarrie is careful to deftly intermix crucial observations on human nature — aware that in life, as in all great mysteries, people are not so easily described as “killer” and “victim.” And part of why you’ll root for Reacher is his empathy for these foibles and follies, especially with the supporting character of Sandy (Alexia Fast) — a low-rent floozy paid to ensnare Reacher in a trap who seems to understand the world needs easy marks like her to serve as warnings to other people.

Of the supporting cast, only Rosamund Pike, as Barr’s public defender, is merely serviceable. David Oyelowo (Red Tails) seethes with Sidney Poitier’s intensity as a cop suspicious of Reacher. Richard Jenkins, he of evergreen character-actor reliability, plays a D.A. with a record perhaps too spotless to be truly clean.

As seen in the flavorless A Good Day to Die Hard,  Hollywood wants to shoehorn Jai Courtney into hero roles when he’s more comfortable here as a heavy for whom violence is no quick snap but a slow, sadistic pleasure. (Thankfully, the movie does not deny him a collision-course confrontation with Reacher.) And to goose the last act, Robert Duvall shows up as a crotchety gun-range owner who uses bullets for earplugs and gives Reacher an earful on their intermilitary rivalry.

Jack Reacher is an out-and-out terrific detective tale, with as much meticulous attention paid to its characters as to its labyrinthine mystery. Over 130 minutes, of which not one is wasted, Cruise creates a gumshoe with whom you’ll want to spend more time. Whether you get a chance will be thanks to global moviegoers (who pushed Reacher to $200 million) and the whim of Paramount number-crunchers.

At least the studio hasn’t shortchanged the film’s Blu-ray release. One cheesy change for the cover art: A billowing American flag that screams, “Yeah! ’Murica!” about a film that takes an unexpectedly challenging, curious view of freedom’s definition.

Although much of the film’s hardscrabble evocation of Pittsburgh mutes the colors, the reds on retail polo shirts, luscious lips and Reacher’s Chevelle all pop. Like Reacher, the transfer also leaves no detail unobserved, from fingernail striations to leather crinkles.

The DTS-HD MA 7.1 Surround track is equally immaculate. Enveloping sound design is one of Jack Reacher’s strengths, and it’s faithfully recreated at home, whether it’s the whomp of a helicopter, the roar of an engine or the breath of a sniper.

Extras include: a commentary with Cruise and McQuarrie; a second commentary from Kraemer; a mini making-of documentary; and two featurettes about the logistics of the film’s action sequences and Child’s writing process.