I was just as ready as everyone else to blame Tom Cruise. By any standards, the Hollywood-slick, alien-worshipping midget was a terrible choice for hard-bitten vigilante Jack Reacher. Surely any flaws in the movie of the same name would have to be his fault, right?
Surprisingly, no. Cruise tries his hardest to respect the character’s terse literary roots, and at times nearly manages it. But director Christopher McQuarrie makes the mistake of turning a noir detective novel into a Hollywood-style action movie, a move that does neither genre any favors. Sam Spade-style dialogue sounds flat in a traditional shoot-em-up, and an action movie crawls when slowed to film noir speeds.
The resulting movie is best appreciated as an old-school detective film, where the hero wears a spiritual trench coat if not a physical one. A scene near the end even gives us rain and shadows, the requisite weather for any noir.
Slotting “Jack Reacher” back into the same detective genre as the Lee Child books also takes care of some of the movie’s perceived failings. The steady stream of sarcastic tough-guy patter is a requirement for a detective movie, but it’s not meant to be laugh-out-loud funny. Laughing at Humphrey Bogart, for example, would probably get you shot.
The female roles in the movie are fairly cliched, but that’s a problem with the entire genre. In detective movies women are either femme fatales or innocent victims, and they’re required by law to be romantically attracted to the hero.
Rosemund Pike tries hard to make her character more well-rounded, but the entire weight of genre history keeps shoving her back into the innocent victim role. For audience members used to watching the more tough-talking women found in action movies, her motivations make no sense.
As is always true in noir, the men fare better. Cruise manages to dial down his usual Hollywood slickness, turning in a performance that’s almost entirely without flashiness.
There’s a certain amount of baggage he can’t help but carry into a role, but the ego he commits to is Reacher’s. He clearly believes in the character so much that it’s easy to let yourself start believing as well.
David Oyelowo is a delight as Emerson, the sharp, sarcastic detective that serves as both ally and antagonist to the intrepid detective. Oyelowo can have dangerous eyes when he wants to, and he tosses off the tough-guy patter like he was born to it.
Robert Duvall really was born to the patter, shining in a small role designed to celebrate his awesomeness. Werner Herzog oozes menace as the mysterious Big Bad, raising the movie’s classiness and sense of dread every time he’s onscreen.
The violence can be brutal, and a little more bitter than the easy deaths normally found in action movies. In the wake of the Connecticut shootings, the sight of a sniper’s attack hit me a little harder than it might have otherwise. The movie also encourages emotional reactions by devoting a scene to the grief and anger of the victims’ families. Things are never easy in a detective movie, even for the audience.
And, for once, it’s not Tom Cruise’s fault.