Based upon the 18th in a soon to be 21 novel series by Lee Child, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back finds Edward Zwick taking over the director's chair from Christopher McQuarrie and constructing a slightly more soulful and slightly less action-packed follow-up to 2012's Jack Reacher.
You know you're a mega-star in Hollywood when you find yourself starring in not one but two action franchises, though with an estimated $60 million production budget the Reacher films clearly play second fiddle to the higher tech, more impossible Mission: Impossible films.
Never Go Back features a lo-beam Tom Cruise, the actor's trademark smile slightly dimmed and his face a little bit more chiseled and lived in than we're used to the actor allowing to be seen on the big screen. It fits Reacher, Child's aimless drifter and seeker of justice. Cruise has always seemed an odd choice for the bigger and buffer Reacher of the literary page, though Cruise comes a little bit closer this time around to finding the soul of the character despite a script, co-penned by Zwick, Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz, that is filled with dial-up dialogue and cliche's for which no justice can possibly ever be found.
The film reunites Cruise with Zwick, who directed the actor in 2003's The Last Samurai, with similarly mixed results. In the film, Reacher has set aside the structure and accountability of military life for a sort of crime fighting walkabout. While it's not portrayed particularly well here, Cruise's Reacher is a bruised and battered man who did his job well and has a broken psyche' to show for it. Unable to bond with anyone, including himself, he seemingly winds his way back to the D.C. area to meet Major Turner (Cobie Smulders), a military lifer who now heads up Reacher's old unit. By the time he gets there, he's informed by General Harkness (Robert Knepper) that the Major has been brought up on espionage charges.
Somethin' ain't right, ya know?
Before long, Reacher himself is facing charges and he's breaking both himself and Major Turner out of the slammer just before some major baddies, mostly personified by Patrick Heusinger, show up with some plans that don't exactly involve justice. Just to throw some humanity into the mix, Reacher gets wind that he may have fathered a troubled teen (relative newcomer Danika Yarosh), providing a vulnerability the baddies intend to exploit for the impenetrable Reacher.
With this relatively brief description, you have pretty much everything you need to know about Jack Reacher: Never Go Back including pretty much all the information you need to figure out who's good, who's bad and almost exactly what's going to happen.
Here's the thing. Despite it's almost irritating familiarity and paint-by-numbers script, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a surprisingly good time despite the slightly slowed down action from its predecessor and far too many paper thin secondary characters. While Cruise could easily phone in this performance, for the most part he doesn't. It's been a while since Cruise actually picked a project that required acting, a bit of a disappointment for those of us who remember his critically praised early years. Somewhere along the way, Cruise took a detour and opted for franchise glory instead of the occasional Oscar nomination and he's never looked back. While Never Go Back certainly doesn't dance anywhere near Oscar territory, Cruise's performance is a little more substantial and a little more thoughtful than we've seen from him in recent years. This is especially true in scenes involving promising newcomer Danika Yarosh, whose ability to understand Reacher's past and present provides a glimpse at human connection that never turns maudlin yet adds a bit of emotional heft to the film.
Kudos to Zwick and his screenwriters for at least flirting with the idea of addressing gender stereotypes, though one wishes they hadn't soft-pedaled the subject matter and had decided to make a more firm statement on the matter. Smulders, well, smolders as Major Turner, a badass soldier who matches Reacher note-for-note, a reality that likely explains Reacher's knowing attraction during all their telephone conversations. Turner isn't hesitant to confront Reacher when she's tasked with watching the kid, for example, and Zwick isn't hesitant to put both Turner and Reacher in similarly harrowing circumstances.
Unfortunately, too much of the film soft pedals. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back could have been both thoughtful and ass kickin', but it seems like every time we're about to go boldly into new territory that Zwick either pulls back or the story dances along formulaic lines.
So close. Yet, so far.
There will be those who absolutely hate Never Go Back, though it earns more apathy than hate much of the time. The truth is that even with all its flaws, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a solid enough popcorn flick with a satisfying if not particularly top o' the line performance from Cruise and company. I mean, seriously. Let's face it. Tom Cruise on cruise control is still better than 90% of the actors out there.
Sometimes, you just want to go into a movie and check your brain and your logic at the door.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic