Jack Reacher, the character, is well named. He knows who he is and he knows who he wants to be, but he always goes after a little more than that. Jack Reacher (2012), the movie, is less well named. It knows what it is and it knows what it wants to be, but it will be damned if it tries to be anything more than that. That’s not really a complaint; the movie has a place to go and it gets there with professionalism and skill, something not every thriller can claim, but there are just better places for a movie to go. It’s like taking a Rolls Royce to a Burger King. It’s a great way to get there, but what’s the point?
The movie begins with a harrowing scene of violence as a sniper guns down innocent civilians in a park. We see the shooter and discover that the man accused of and arrested for the crime is someone else. The evidence against him is substantial. A lawyer questions him. He won’t speak but only writes, “Get Jack Reacher.” It turns out they don’t have to.Reacher (Tom Cruise), a former military policeman who served with the accused before disappearing into hermitdom, walks into the office of District Attorney Alex Rodin (the ubiquitous Richard Jenkins) and asks to see the case evidence. Reacher is denied by the DA, but is granted the request by Helen (Rosamund Pike), the accused’s attorney and the daughter of the DA. The relatives are estranged, it seems, by their opposite view of the death penalty, and Helen has made it clear that her intention with the accused’s case, whose goose appears to be cooked, is to save him from the chair. Reacher, who is convinced of the accused’s guilt, is assigned as lead investigator, and he soon, using his preternatural understanding of human behavior, unravels a giant conspiracy and discovers that the random killings of a madman might not be that random nor done by the particular madman in custody.
Reacher is like a paranoid mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Flem Snopes, seeing every angle and outfoxing every acquaintance. He has that tremendous ability, common with screen adaptations of literary detectives (Jack Reacher is taken from one story in a line of Reacher novels by Lee Child), of being given iron-clad evidence then starting a sentence with, “But what if …” then giving a theory we know is correct for no other reason than the name of the character giving it is also the name of the movie. This phenomenon reached its annoying apex with The Da Vinci Code’s (2006) Robert Langdon, a character who was such a gratingly know-it-all that even Tom Hanks couldn’t make him palatable. Cruise does a nice job here with better material and even adds something a little extra: Cruise’s trademark intensity, when installed in a character who is set up as a paranoid loner (though a paranoid loner with exceptional social skills), brings up questions about Reacher’s mental state that, sadly, the movie never answers.
In fact, at every opportunity to mine some emotional truth or meaning, the movie balks: For example, leaving unresolved the tension between the DA and his daughter, an assignment for Helen to empathize with the victim’s families, the psychological motives behind the traitor within the crime investigation, or the Russian mob leader (played by Werner Herzog) who is the organizer of the conspiracy. Without meaningful exploration, the players in these undelved into side quests become stale mannequins to keep the curtain up while Reacher is off–screen (though a mannequin played by Herzog can only be so stale).
The most unsettling deficiency is the movie’s refusal to answer basic questions about the nature of its central character. Where Reacher differs form Holmes, or Snopes, or even Langdon, is that he likes to take the law into his own hands and beat and kill people when he thinks it’s “right.” This type of fascism is swallowable because we get to see that what Reacher is doing, in the context of the scenario the movie sets up, is right, but his brazen vigilante worldview goes completely unquestioned, something that even the surface–deep Batman movies investigate. The movie has drawn comparisons to Dirty Harry (1971) and so it should;neither has an opinion about what we should think of their live-wire protagonists.
The movie succeeds as a procedural, taking the time to establish the steps of Reacher’s search for the truth and gradually drawing the viewer into the way his mind works. There’s a handsome bit of filmmaking involving a bar fight that is more than a bar fight that is well done on its own, but Reacher’s deduction of what it actually was sets up his analysis of how the victims in the shootings might not be as the official report makes them out to be. The action is well-paced as well, and even when it gets narratively ludicrous (Reacher has his man with a gun and casts it aside so he can fight him tough-guy style), it never gets visually out of hand. These are the moments that distinguish Jack Reacher, and they are enough to get us to that Burger King in style, but I couldn’t help but feel, while having my Whopper, that it wouldn’t have hurt for a movie with that title to reach just a little bit more.