Movie Review: “Jack Reacher”

In “Jack Reacher,” a sniper with a scoped M1A has just killed five Pirates fans in front of PNC Park with six long distance shots. Even Roberto Clemente rarely went five for six, so the shooter had to have some skills. Because the Pirates can ill afford to lose what’s left of their dwindling fan base, the Pittsburgh Five-O jumps all over the case. A suspect named Barr – one name, like Beyonce – is quickly picked up by the fuzz. The case against him is so strong that even Marcia Clark could win it. The accused man, who is a former military sniper, refuses to talk to the cops. Instead, he writes the name of Jack Reacher on the DA’s legal pad. I don’t know about you, but I’d be writing “Gerry Spence.”

And just who is Jack Reacher?

He’s a will o’ the wisp, a legend, a rumor. A former highly-decorated military police officer and West Point grad, Reacher is a modern knight-errant who lives completely off the grid. Unlike knights of old, he travels by Greyhound bus rather than a magnificent steed, probably because the inside of a bus is at least marginally cleaner than your average stable.

Reacher is a character created by British author Jim Grant, writing as Lee Child. As envisioned by Child, Reacher has few possessions and no roots. He wanders from town to town with nothing more than the clothes on his back, some cash, a well-used travel toothbrush and maybe a couple of jumbo Trojans.

At 6’5” and 250 pounds of pure muscle, Reacher is so huge and powerful that strong men’s sphincters prolapse at the mere sight of him. On his way from somewhere to nowhere, Reacher rights wrongs, executes bad guys and gets laid. He’s the Lone Ranger without Tonto, Paladin for the new millennium, and in this move he’s played by Tom Cruise.

Wait, Tom Cruise?

I know. It’s counter-intuitive, like Vin Diesel playing the lead in “The Hobbit.” So what if Cruise is a hundred pounds lighter and ten inches shorter than Reacher. In Hollywood, ten inches only matters in porn.

But back to the plot. The Pittsburgh DA and the po-po reach out for Reacher but they can’t reach Reacher because Reacher doesn’t want to be reached. Yeah, he’s like that. However, unknown to the Pittsburgh authorities, Reacher, who has just finished boffing a nubile nymphet in a cheap motel room somewhere in America, sees the news report on TV and hops the first Trailways bus to the City of Bridges.

Helen Rodin, Barr’s defense attorney (played by British actress Rosamund Pike), is happy to see Reacher, and not because he has a pistol in his pocket. She’s convinced that Barr is as guilty as OJ but she wants to save him from the needle because, like seamstresses, that’s what good lawyers do.Never mind that there hasn’t been an execution in Pennsylvania since the last year of the last century. It’s the thought that counts, and Helen doesn’t want the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania partying on Barr like it’s 1999.

Oh, and did I mention that the DA, who never-ever-ever-loses — ever — is Helen’s dear old dad? Or that the chick is still working through a serious Electra complex? Okay, I kinda extrapolated the last part. Let’s just say that the two of them aren’t going to join up for Take Your Daughter to Work Day any time soon, and let it go at that.

Anyway, Helen thinks that Reacher, as Barr’s friend, is just the guy to help her save Barr’s worthless life. But not so fast – Reacher’s no friend of Barr. In fact, he hates Barr’s guts and would be delighted to see him die, especially if he could personally do the honors.

The rest of the movie involves Reacher using his best Jedi mind tricks to unravel a far-reaching criminal conspiracy. He also finds time to go all Chuck Norris on five, count ‘em, five tough guys at once, disarm a thug with a nifty spin move, fight hand to hand celebrity death matches with some serious badasses, drive a car like he stole it and perform other acts of derring-do, Reacher style.

“Jack Reacher” has four signature action scenes. They’re good, but there’s nothing in them that we haven’t seen before.

The first is the opening sniper shooting. It’s well done, but Peter Bogdanovich did it better in the 1968 movie “Targets,” when the budget for the entire film was $130,000. The producers of “Jack Reacher’ spent more than that on lunch.

The second has Reacher taking on the five bozos immediately after telling them how he’s going to beat them up. Having witnessed a bar fight or two from uncomfortably close distances, I can testify that the only talking points just before and during a five-on-one beatdown involves, at most, a couple of guttural, unprintable Anglo-Saxon epithets. Followed immediately by the five guys jumping on the one guy and stomping him about the head until the wax runs out of his ears. There’s just not a lot of snappy dialog.

Action scene number three is a car chase that should have been great, but was only good. Cruise did his own driving in the scene, and he did his part well. However, the chase owed more to “Grand Theft Auto” it did to “Bullitt” or “The French Connection.”

Those two car chases were the best in movie history because their directors exploited the locations where they were filmed. In “Bullitt,” the cars flew up, over and down the hills and humps of the streets of San Francisco. In TFC, William Friedkin wove the chase scene through a maze of New York traffic and under its elevated trains, leaving paint on just about every girder and parked car in town.

Jack Reacher drives through back alleys that have all the character and interest of a dorm room at Bob Jones University. In a place known as the City of Bridges, the chase scene must be considered a lost opportunity.

The last signature moment comes when Reacher gets the drop on a kidnapper, only to toss away his weapon so the bad guy can kick his ass a little. Really?

And that’s the eternal question: would the character really do that? Does the cheerleader really go into the basement when she hears something down there in the dark? No, she gets out of the house and calls the college football team that she’s been, uh, cultivating all year.Do the young lovers really get it on in the woods after they know that the homicidal maniac has escaped from the lunatic asylum conveniently located just down the road? No, they get a room at a motel, preferably in another time zone.

Does Reacher really toss away his gun so he can have the pleasure of busting up the bad guy with his bare knuckles while the kidnap victim simpers twenty-five feet away with a Glock 17 to her head?

So there are some plot elements that don’t make a lot of sense. Big deal. It’s a movie, not a doctoral thesis. As for Cruise, he’s a bit like government; he acts best when he acts least. Reacher is taciturn, so playing Reacher doesn’t require a lot of emoting, or even talking, which plays to one of the Tom’s strengths. Cruise also carries out his part of the bargain by looking as fit as a smallish 50-year old man can look, especially one whose workout regimen involves jumping up and down on Oprah’s sofa.

Toward the end of the movie before the climax, we see the star playing off Robert Duvall. That’s when we get a glimpse of how engaging Cruise can be. Cruise is at his best when he can flash a bit of wry insouciance, like he did while playing Lt. Kaffee in “A Few Good Men.” Some humor would not be out of character for a Reacher story, and this movie could have benefitted from a bit more of it. Especially since Cruise does that touch of humor thing better than anyone else.

But no. In an effort to seem more menacing than his physical presence can carry off, Cruise has made Reacher a bit too stoic. He never once comes on to Helen, even when she threatens to bust out of her semi-revealing tops and turn the movie into Twin Peaks. Had we not seen Reacher in the motel room with the pretty young thing, we’d naturally assume that he’s unaffected by pulchritude of the female kind. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Alas, while the Reacher books usually have a touch of romance, this movie has none, and Cruise and Pike have exactly zero chemistry.

Reacher’s two principal foils are Duvall as a crusty ex-Marine and German director Werner Herzog as the creepy Russian villain. The crusty ex-Marine has become a predictable Hollywood cliché, and frankly, I’m bored with it. Still, Duvall is quirky, funny and tough in the part. He brings out the best of Cruise.

And Russian villains? Let’s just say that Hollywood hasn’t liked a Russian since their beloved Joe Stalin caught a stroke. Herzog’s “Zek” is repulsive, frightening and utterly believable, even with his German accent trying to pass for Russian. He brings out the worst of Reacher.

Director and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie keeps the action moving along, while Cruise is Cruise. There were fine supporting performances by a Gen3 Glock 17, a Colt M1911A1 and an M4A1. There were also a special appearances by a SIG P556/550 hybrid and a custom rifle previously used in “Salt” that’s way more drool-worthy than Angelina Jolie. There’s also a cameo by a scoped Remington 700 because, well, there’s always a scoped Remmy somewhere. It’s America, ain’t it?

The real star of the movie is the Springfield Armory M1A. It’s in three important scenes, once wearing desert camo, once in woodland camo and a Standard in oiled walnut. But no matter how it was outfitted by the wardrobe department, the M1A functioned flawlessly, proved perfectly accurate and never demanded its own trailer.

Taking everything into account, “Jack Reacher” is an okay action movie that should have been a very good action movie. The film only made about $16 million during its first week, so it’s far short of earning back its $50-60 million budget and justifying a second Reacher movie.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: Jack Reacher
Caliber: Medium
Length:  130 minutes
Action: Plenty
Finish: The Lone Ranger leaves town in a puff of diesel smoke
Price: About $30 with popcorn and a soda

RATINGS (out of five bullets):

Style * * * *
Pittsburgh never looked so good. The way it’s photographed, it might as well be Paris, or at least the Paris of Pennsylvania. The sniping scenes — and there are several — are tight. The snipers all shoot Springfield Armory M1A’s, proving that the civilian version of the M14 really is as evil as Diane Feinstein. I mean, as evil as Diane Feinstein says.

Reliability * * *
The book was better. Okay, except for Charleton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments,” the book is always better.

OVERALL RATING * * * 1/2
There’s plenty of muscular but formulaic action. Strong turns by Werner Herzog as the reptilian Russian villain, and Robert Duvall as the OFWG who owns a gun range, earn the film an extra ½*. Who says that OFWGs can’t be cool?