“Are we gonna die?”
“Let’s find out!”
The film and TV landscape is littered with shallow graves of recklessly ransacked IPs. Among the interred? Jack Reacher … or at least Tom Cruise’s incarnation of the popular character created by novelist Lee Child.
Reacher is a hard-hitting, trash-talking Army cop turned knight-errant drifter, a one-man A-Team capable of violence with which to clean up dirty deeds on which he always stumbles. However, if the usually reticent Reacher has his way, stomped faces and snapped fingers are a last-resort lingua franca. Oh, but how fluent his language has been through 26 novels and counting.
Child’s legendarily barrel-chested, 6’5” characterization with hands the size of family-feeding hams cast a shadow over Cruise when his casting was announced. But the superstar still delivered a wholly entertaining embodiment of Reacher’s attitude, letting his age infuse weariness in his putdowns and beatdowns. He and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie delivered a tough, terse and terrific take on the character in 2012’s Jack Reacher. After stepping back to focus on Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise, McQuarrie handed the creative reins to … well, what Reacher might call a bag of assholes. 2016’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back was so bland even Mark Harmon would request something edgier and boasted a visual aesthetic akin to a 25-year-old CBS movie of the week brought to you by Lee Jeans, Dodge and Kmart. It is unequivocally Tom Cruise’s worst movie, and it effectively killed Reacher’s cinematic viability.
McQuarrie thankfully realized a mea culpa was in order, and that has manifested in the immensely pleasurable and eminently binge-worthy Reacher — an Amazon Prime Video streaming series that debuts Friday on the service. Serving as executive producer and soliciting Nick Santora (an ace mastermind on Fox’s Prison Break) as showrunner, McQuarrie makes good on continuing Reacher’s onscreen promise, albeit with a quite different physicality and personality in leading man Alan Ritchson (TV’s Smallville and Titans).
This eight-episode first season (for which Amazon provided all episodes to review) takes its inspiration from Killing Floor, the first and still best Reacher novel. A drifter who was born to walk alone, Reacher has made his way to Margrave, Georgia, a charming small town where he’ll soak in the sights, sample the pie and sip the coffee. But Reacher can’t get the fork to his face before he’s besieged by cops who like him for the murder of a body found by the highway. The twisty mystery of Killing Floor has many depth charges best left undisturbed before watching, and the biggest is detonated by the end of the first episode. Suffice to say Reacher isn’t behind this body, but he’ll take credit for plenty as more of Margrave’s secrets come to light.
Ritchson resembles what would happen if Thanos absorbed Patrick Swayze — an actor whose reticent, charming-rascal heroism Ritchson effortlessly echoes here a la Road House. Ritchson is also game for a wide array of sight gags that play off his comically large muscles, which are also impeccably suited to Reacher’s regular threnodies of savagery. His fistfights are often over in seconds, and Ritchson moves here with the swift, decisive energy that you conjure in your mind’s eye as you read the novels.
There’s also an all-timer kill in Episode 6 that capitalizes on the sheer volume of Ritchson’s body, postmortem details that would make the Criminal Minds honchos blush, size-14 shitkickers regularly stomped on groins and necks, and hemorrhaging orifices that can only come from pummeled insides. But neither does Reacher revel in its R-rated territory simply because it can. Apart from his closer resemblance to Child’s physical characterization, Ritchson plays Reacher less like a psychopath than Cruise did and with deeper empathy for people’s emotional turmoil; working with a lot beneath the stoic facade, Ritchson infuses a moment where Reacher must withhold the news of someone’s death from their loved ones with his own feelings of familial guilt that he hasn’t reconciled. This Reacher’s vulnerability is less about a physical disadvantage than one born of an inability to dissociate his feelings from the carnage — something that flashbacks illustrate alongside the present-day story without simply padding out each episode’s running time. Reacher’s hot-blooded rage has betrayed him before and will again. Could that millisecond be enough for someone to exploit and end his life?
That’s not the only plus of bringing talented female screenwriters and directors into the creative mix, as Santora and McQuarrie have done. Reacher’s interactions with local cop Roscoe Conklin (Willa Fitzgerald) eventually turn romantic but never troglodytic as they often do in Child’s books — where Reacher’s go-to vocabulary to sweet-talk women tends to stop at “spectacular” and the fairer sex always seems supernaturally ready to foul some sheets with him.
Here, Reacher is a worrier and a warrior, a wraith and a wiseass. He’s as comfortable with deductive reasoning — zeroing in on everything from possessive pronouns to condiment chemicals here — as destructive reckoning. Little touches like the library decorations on someone’s wall, observed but unremarked upon until later episodes, make the viewer feel like a ride-along partner in the way Child’s sometimes endless exposition cannot. And amid all the narrow escapes and wonderful scrapes, Reacher nails the scale of stakes, character touches, and a sense of belonging Reacher accrues by spending time with the townspeople he helps … or hurts.
Those roles are shrewdly cast, too, in addition to the fierce independence and capable force Fitzgerald brings to Conklin. Harvey Guillén (FX’s What We Do in the Shadows) brings some great levity as a harried coroner whose slabs fill up faster once Reacher rolls into town, and Malcolm Goodwin (iZombie) makes for a formidable foil-turned-friend as Oscar Finley, a detective who has some skeletons in his own closet. Goodwin and Fitzgerald especially aren’t simply narrative chess pieces for Reacher to remove from the board to run roughshod through the show; their little peccadilloes for large guns and / or lame classic rock flesh them out as a motley crew alongside Reacher, which mounts up to take down the most craven villains. They’re sometimes clumsy, often conflicted and doggedly courageous, traits that Santora and his writing staff allow to burn as brightly as Reacher. By the time they team with Reacher for pulpy, pitch-perfect pummelings of people who deserve to be pushed into the next life, you’re rooting for all of them.
Character-actor legends Bruce McGill and Currie Graham also embody entitled institutional menace as the town’s respective mayor and big businessman, while Chris Webster rises to the challenge of resident sociopath Reacher often faces. Plus, Maria Sten (TV’s Swamp Thing) is also just right as Frances Neagley, a Reacher-fan favorite and the character’s from-afar aide de camp across many adventures.
Among his many specialties, Jack Reacher also prides himself on restoring sanctity to profaned places. After spending six years in a potter’s field of onscreen IP, it’s nice to see Reacher restore that glory for the character.