Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a largely lackluster action movie that’s nonetheless further proof Cruise is one of our best action stars. He’s simply believable. In 2012, we first met his Jack Reacher, writer Lee Child’s ex-military drifter who specializes in helping people out of tight spots before leaving on the next bus out of town, with a compelling mystery, crackerjack plot, and crisp staging from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. It made the character a good fit for this stage of Cruise’s persona. He’s aged into a presence of pure drive and effortful effortlessness. His Mission: Impossibles are the best way to see his smooth-yet-grizzled total confidence and sly dry humor, but Reacher allows him to play it in the lowest, coolest key. It’s not hard to imagine Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood in the role fifty years ago. Here Reacher survives a low-functioning sequel with his coolness intact. It’s like a dud episode in a procedural you otherwise enjoy.
This time around, Reacher heads to Washington D.C. to meet an army friend (Cobie Smulders). Once there he discovers she’s in prison, framed for a crime he knows she wouldn’t commit. Turns out she’s run afoul of a scheming defense contractor who spies Reacher’s inquiries into her case and decides to frame him, too. So Reacher breaks her out of prison, then goes on the lamb to clear their names and bring down the mysterious arms-dealing scheme that can afford to send trained assassins all over the place. It’s technically a mystery, but it operates at a simple level, showing all the cards pretty early and then watching as Cruise and Smulders arrive at the conclusions of which we’re already well aware. I mean, one look at the hitman (Holt McCallany) hiding behind sunglasses and stubble, or the cadaverous General (Robert Knepper), and it’s obvious who the bad guys are and what their conspiracy is.
It plays like a highlight reel, all outwitting and reversals of power, Cruise swaggering into a room and outsmarting everyone or, when that fails, punching all the right guys to get the job done. There are some small pleasures to be found, like Reacher walloping a man in the head by punching through a car window. But under director Edward Zwick’s bland craftsmanship and co-writer Richard Wenk’s routine plotting, it’s a little mushy, overfamiliar, bland. We get a car chase, and it’s just screeching tires and inevitable conclusions. The gunfights are just mindless rounds and big booms. The fistfights are bruising, but inelegantly choreographed. And the central spine of investigation isn’t so much finding and piecing together clues as the characters luckily ending up in the exact right place for the story to keep churning them along. It’s like watching a smarter movie on fast forward, moving past each scene before it can settle into a better, more effective rhythm.
Aside from Cruise’s dependability, the most enjoyable aspect of this movie is its 80’s-sequel-style jerry-rigged family until. Cruise and Smulders end up watching out for a fifteen-year-old girl (Danika Yarosh) who needs their protection, leading to amusing scenes where she pouts and complains and the adults have to say things like, “now, listen here, young lady.” There’s even a whole to-do about the girl sneaking out to try some investigating of her own, leading to the stern paternal figures awkwardly falling into the sitcom “We were worried! Where were you?” speech. It’s not much, but it’s there, just one of a few fine small touches. Other fleeting pleasures include learning Smulders can do that Tom Cruise run: stiff spin standing straight up, rigid arms swinging with mechanical precision, a grim stare of determination sharpening the eyes. It’s funny to see them together, two perfectly speedy pedestrians hurtling the human body as fast as it can go. You take your mild enjoyment where you can get it in a polished boredom, a middle-of-the-road programmer. If we meet Reacher again, let’s hope it’s in a better movie.