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Formulaic, predictable and lazy, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is exactly the type of clichéd genre movie the first Jack Reacher rebelled against (which is why classic action fans continue to love it as much as we do). This disappoints because author Lee Child has 20 Reacher novels and counting, all containing a litany of engrossingly lethal potboiler stories just waiting to be adapted on the big screen, yet now, the series might be DOA. The initial Jack Reacher film bucked the odds and got this potential adult-drama saga off on a fantastic, bloody-knuckled first step. Alas, after going back for Never Go Back, I'd prefer to see Tom Cruise continuing his impossible Mission movies, rather than giving Reacher another go.
Lee Child's Never Go Back strikes me as an odd choice as the inspiration for a second Jack Reacher novel, because -- as readers of the series will know -- the storyline takes place so late in the character's ongoing history. True, the Reacher books primarily act as standalone stories, but Never Go Back arrives at the end of a loose arc that saw the wandering anti-hero (played, once again, by Cruise) connecting with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), the new head of Reacher's old military outfit whom he only knows through telephone conversations. Intrigued by the voice on the other end of the line, Reacher slowly makes his way back to Washington, D.C. and his former Army base, only to learn that Turner has been arrested, and a growing conspiracy threatens to swallow Reacher, as well.
Behind the scenes, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back makes one dramatic substitution that, to me, makes all the difference between success and failure. Original Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie has been replaced by The Last Samurai director Ed Zwick, and with McQuarrie goes the calculated suspense, the vicious bite, the cavalier meanness and intimidatingly violent blanket of machismo that wrapped around the first movie. Where McQuarrie was (and always is) meticulous, sweating the small details that make a genre film better, Zwick's style is generic and sloppy. His blunt take on Reacher strips the fascinating literary character of his basic skills and wisdoms, intent to lean solely on the man-mountain's physicality (in tediously choreographed fight sequences).
In this sense, Reacher resembles James Bond, the Fast and Furious gang, and even Cruise's other bang-bang caricature, Ethan Hunt. The ingredients can stay consistent from film to film, but the chosen director brings such a distinct flavor, which is how we end up with a chasm separating the superior Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol from the convoluted Mission: Impossible 2. We don't have a strong enough sample size to say whether the Reacher series would or could follow a similar path. But knowing what I know about Lee Child's books -- and Cruise's ability to overdeliver on the action front -- if you told me a third Jack Reacher had been greenlit with a new filmmaker in place, I'd buy my ticket tomorrow, no questions asked.
Why? Because Jack Reacher: Never Go Back isn't terrible, or a painful sit (though fans of the books and the original movie likely will leave disappointed by the wasted potential). It's more that Never Go Back looks so inferior in comparison to its predecessor that its warts stand out like speed bumps in a school parking lot. Halfway through the film, as tone deaf soundbites such as "It's time we stop running and start hunting" or "Do you want to live? Do you?" piled waist high, I actually gave Zwick the benefit of the doubt that he was deliberately attempting to recreate the too-confident cheese of '80s-era Stallone or Schwarzenegger... without the exaggerated sense of fun that accompanied those thrill rides. Even if that was his intention, however, he misses the mark overall. There's also no questioning the fact that Tom Cruise gets caught going through the motions in the lead role here -- something you rarely get to say about the ever-committed action star. And the endgame for Never Go Back, as well as the villains Reacher has to mow down in order to reach it, never captivate (though some of that can be traced back to Child's source material, as this book isn't his strongest).
Child has shown, over the years, that it's fairly easy to bounce back from a tepid Jack Reacher story. Some of the author's best novels have arrived after forgettable entries (though Cruise's age, and busy production schedule, put an invisible cap on the number of Reacher films that likely will be in his future). So I wouldn't say never go back to the vast Reacher well. But if Paramount wants to continue this series, they should better choose which stories they're going back to recount, and which directors they are inviting along for the ride.
(Oh, and make sure Reacher headbutts someone in the next movie. He doesn't in this film, and that's the dude's signature move. I took one full star off my grade for that reason. I'm tough, but fair.)