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Tom Cruise is a giant movie star, and will be forever. It's set in his DNA now, in that sharp profile and tense posture; like any good star Cruise is an idea more than a man, an icon of odd American maleness that can outlast Rock of Ages or PR disasters. Last year's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, once intended as a last hurrah of Cruise's action stardom, only served to double down on his on fame. Ushered to the door, Tom Cruise roundhouse kicked the guards and rushed back into the fray.
So here comes Jack Reacher, based on the Lee Child novel One Shot, the first film based on Child's series of Jack Reacher books that are probably actually more popular than Cruise is. The book's fans were apoplectic when the compact Cruise was cast as the large and intimidating Reacher, but the film fits well around him, with Cruise stepping up serviceably to play the ex-military cop who arrives in Pittsburgh to help solve what looks like a random sniper attack that killed five. Reacher doesn't have a passport, doesn't fly, buys his clothes at Goodwill and is exceedingly paranoid; Cruise seems much more confident playing this skilled oddball than he ever has playing an everyman.
Jack Reacher allows Cruise to go through all the stations of the star vehicle, with a little bit of hand-to-hand combat, a little bit of flirtation with a local lady lawyer (Rosamund Pike), a little bit of macho rivalry with the strait-laced homicide detective (David Oyelowo), a car chase, a murder mystery, and of course a shootout. Reacher's a little less funny that he is in the books, but Cruise's coming timing is spot-on when it's called for, including a slapsticky attack scene and the late-in-the-film verbal sparring with Robert Duvall, playing a rifle range owner with the key to cracking the whole case.
Looming literally in the shadows, with just two scenes in the whole film, is documentarian Werner Herzog as the villain Zec, a survivor of a Siberian gulag who chewed off his own fingers when they were dying of frostbite. Zec is exactly the bad guy you want Herzog to play, with delicious lines ("Did I have a knife in Siberia?") and enough menace in his one functioning to chill your blood. It's criminal that Zec is such a small part of the film, but that might be the price paid by a star vehicle-- if Herzog were around too much more, Cruise would definitely no longer be the main attraction.
Director Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter of The Usual Suspects and the underrated Valkyrie, sets up the case in a masterful, silent opening scene, and does well by the car chase and fight scenes, operating with a no-frills efficiency that suits the title character. Where he gets off track is with occasional flourishes, from clunky lines of dialogue ("It was such a great crime scene, no one stopped to think it might be too great") to a florid flashback showing us all the five sniper victims while they lived, milking sympathies we already felt. The conspiracy theory behind the sniper attack is more elaborate and satisfying to unravel in the One Shot book, but McQuarrie keeps a remarkable amount of the plot intact, allowing movie audiences to marvel at Reacher's skills as much as the book's many fans have for years.
There are plenty more Jack Reacher books to choose from should this turn into the much-desired franchise, and some of them are more loose and imaginative than this story, which might make a sequel a little more welcome. Jack Reacher errs on the side of taking itself too seriously, and in simplifying the story becomes more of a standard-issue action thriller-- while most of us know that Reacher, and Cruise himself, are capable of something more. Maybe next time.