Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the worst movie Tom Cruise has ever made.
Look, I’ve seen Cocktail. I endured Lions for Lambs. I enjoyed the silliness of Cruise serenading Malin Akerman’s backside in Rock of Ages as much as he did. “Worst movie Tom Cruise has ever made” is a weighty phrase wielded with great consideration.
Here’s the thing: Cruise knows it, too. The world’s biggest star is simply reluctant to concede defeat.
In his continued characterization of author Lee Child’s cash cow, Cruise doubles down on the silent stoicism of an Army cop turned do-gooder drifter after, as he puts it, “the uniform no longer fit him.”
The books alternately drop Reacher into labyrinthine conspiracies or interpersonal squabbles. Adapted from Child’s Never Go Back novel, this movie mixes Reacher up in a thinly plotted, painfully protracted yarn involving murdered soldiers, paramilitary contractors, stolen weapons, drug trafficking, treason charges against a major (Cobie Smulders) whom he’s befriended, and paternity claims against him involving a 15-year-old daughter (Danika Yarosh).
Because after 2012’s Jack Reacher, we all thought trading barbs with a sullen teenager is what this franchise really needed.
Cruise does a good job trying to fool you into thinking he’s offering more of the alert / aloof thing that made the first film purr so powerfully. But consider a wordless scene in a stolen minivan that lingers on Reacher’s face. He’s not piecing together impossibly dense plots as he does in Child’s books. He’s not chastising himself for dropping his guard over unexpectedly paternal concern for the teen in the back.
No, this is the professionally masked panic of a superstar who himself suspects this sequel has shifted into a 25-year-old CBS movie of the week. Even Mark Harmon would insist on something edgier than Jack Reacher: Looking Cool in Leather Jackets, brought to you by Lee Jeans, Dodge and Kmart.
There are fewer superstars to whom quality control is more important than Tom Cruise. Even when his maniacal insistence upon it constricts narrative imagination or directorial vision, he takes a producer’s pride in assuring that you are indeed watching something that looks and feels like a real, major Hollywood movie. Like a crestfallen regional manager after a sales push gone bad, the megastar’s eyes convey dismay at riding out something he more or less willed into existence because he’s Tom Cruise.
And because Jack Reacher was big in China. See, Jack Reacher: Clenched Jaws and Furrowed Brows is a shotgun marriage of bland American action and fat-wallet Chinese financiers’ interest in said genre. Jack’s nondescript burner phone in a film where product placement could run rampant is perhaps its most creative accomplishment. It’s otherwise so noncommittal to style or mood that a Mandarin power ballad could play over credited financial assistance from Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group.
Enough about the money of Jack Reacher: Never Stop Never Stopping Making Sense. Let’s talk casting.
The first film bounced Reacher off rogues and pals played by Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall and, as the villain, the Teutonic glacier named Werner Herzog. Here, the nasty muscle — whose pleasant shtick is beating people to death and hinting at raping the teenager — is played by someone who has a name but who is, to me, just Evil Chad Michael Murray. Jack Reacher: You’ll Wake Up When Gunfire Erupts is overly eager to roll in poison ivy and scratch its itch for violence.
The evil mastermind? Robert Knepper, the craggy-faced imp who just filled Lance Henriksen’s shoes in the straight-to-VOD Hard Target 2 and does little in Jack Reacher: Hey, It’s What I Got a Call For.
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s first film oozed with lean, mean snub-nosed purpose. He stays on as a producer, but I remain convinced he wrote the only modestly entertaining scene — a prologue in East Nowhere, USA, where a crowd marvels at a morally righteous Reacher smackdown.
Instead peacing out to prep “Mission Impossible 6” with Cruise, McQuarrie hands the reins to Edward Zwick. Remember Zwick? He made Glory, Courage Under Fire, The Siege, The Last Samurai (with Cruise) and Blood Diamond — films of varying quality but surefooted visuals. Too bad he’s changed careers to multimillion-dollar water-bucket carrier. The aesthetic of Jack Reacher: Leaning in Doorways aspires only to what is commonly known as “Thursdays This Fall on CBS.”
Zwick serves up several over-cranked, black-and-white scenes of “Reacher vision,” a feeble attempt at investigative hypothesis a la NBC’s Hannibal that instead indulges even more unpleasant nastiness. A climactic foot chase set during a New Orleans Halloween parade — because Jack Reacher: Louisiana Tax Credits — collapses in a jumble of bad editing, cloddish choreography and unconvincing stuntwork. The remainder often feels like part of a fake-movie montage in Tropic Thunder. Sadly, Cruise doesn’t transform into Les Grossman to verbally tear everyone a new one.
Why not let Cruise change characters? Zwick and his co-writers (Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk) sure don’t give a damn about Reacher. Fine print doesn’t ensnare him. He knows the fine print. Hell, he probably wrote it. Instead, they pile on the treacle — and Henry Jackman’s overbearing 10-hankie score — in an attempt to make Jack Reacher: 8 Simple Rules for Defending My (Maybe) Teenage Daughter.
Because no one involved cares about the right sequelized subtitle to squeeze out after this movie passes through the colon, let’s just leave it at Jack Reacher: Never Again.