There are those, if I may begin on an uncommonly serious note, who will find the subject matter of Jack Reacher rather chilling, and probably not in exactly the way that the filmmakers intended. The film, based on the seven-year-old novel One Shot by Lee Child, and adapted and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, depicts a spree of gun violence on a group of innocent bystanders as its central plot point. In the wake of the Newtown, CT mass shooting, the film’s portrayal of this particular form of violence could potentially have an unsettling effect on more sensitive viewers. That said, it is supposed to have an unsettling effect. Jack Reacher, despite its obvious intentions as mainstream entertainment, goes to great lengths to present this crime as a tragedy and to humanize its victims. Although the movie itself is fun, the troubling sequence of events at the core of the storyline is treated with uncommon sensitivity, particularly for a genre that often succumbs to the ethos that gun violence is “cool.”
This is not new to filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, whose first directorial effort The Way of the Gun made a conscious effort to film one of its two gunfights off-screen, and then present only the aftermath, which included lingering images of lifeless bystanders caught in the fray. In Jack Reacher, the director makes it a point to film the violence from the perspective of the criminal and then, separately, from the perspective of the victims, juxtaposing the calculations of the murderer and the shocking reality on the other end of his scope. Another central plot point sends a character in charge of defending the murderer to the homes of the victims’ families, partially as a proper investigation, but equally to understand their genuine plight. In just two films, McQuarrie has navigated a delicate tightrope of portraying criminals, even those whom audiences might consider “chaotic neutral” antiheroes, as individuals with a disturbingly flexible morality, whose actions have ugly consequences to both those they harm and their very own souls.
So if it is your concern that Jack Reacher’s storyline will have a serious emotional impact on you and your loved ones, then perhaps you should stay away, at least until you feel capable of viewing this material as its own entity, separate from real-life tragedies that might recontextualize the film’s events in a somewhat skewed light. Jack Reacher treats its own tragedy fairly, but the recent real-world context is clearly unintended.
Those who do attend Jack Reacher this weekend, and those who are disposed to appreciating the film as an action-thriller, will be pleased to discover that it is one of the better entries in the genre in quite some time. It’s a violent film, but that violence is tempered with a form of reality (although Tom Cruise pretty much brushes off a baseball bat to the head, which is a notable exception). It’s got car chases and it’s got shootouts, and while those scenes are excitingly filmed, they are chockablock with unexpected details that make them uncommonly distinctive. Why is it, exactly, that so few car chases show one of the participants missing their turn and having to back up in a comical manner? Why is it that heroes in a shootout so rarely miss their targets? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if they screwed up a bunch of times? And why wouldn’t multiple combatants just get in each other’s way? That must be the reason why all Bruce Lee’s opponents took him on one at a time. Kudos, Jack Reacher, for making the most commonly mocked kung fu cliché seem perfectly reasonable, and without – I suspect – even trying very hard.
The plot of the film, beyond the seriousness of the actual crime, is the sort of material you’d normally only forgive on an airplane. A sniper has been arrested for the aforementioned shooting spree, and before a prison altercation sends him into an all-too-convenient coma, his only words are “Get me Jack Reacher.” Which of course begs the question, who the hell is Jack Reacher? It turns out he’s a former military police officer who investigated the accused for a previous murder, and who has arrived in town to make sure he goes to jail for it this time. He is also a mysterious drifter with, simultaneously, a heart of gold and an amoral streak. Jack Reacher, as played charismatically by Tom Cruise, is a jumbled mass of both detective and action god clichés, and it is only through the film’s winking sense of humor that he emerges from that blob of gross familiarity as a figure worth watching, and worthy of entertaining us.
But Jack Reacher decides to investigate the murders further because the accused’s lawyer, played by Rosamund Pike (whose every line-reading carries the breathiness of a phone sex operator auditioning for “Law & Order”), is convinced that he deserves a fair trial. Unexpectedly, Reacher discovers serious holes in the prosecution’s supposedly airtight case, and a larger – but not particularly grand – mystery unfolds involving a mysterious Russian, played by a scene-stealing Werner Herzog (himself the director of Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man), as well as a den of dopey meth dealers and the most amusing hardware store since… actually, come to think of it, this may be my favorite movie hardware store. It's a tiny distinction, but I think it’s worth noting nonetheless.
Despite the tragic real-life corollary, Jack Reacher will doubtless live on as a fine example of genre filmmaking done right. The beats are familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie before, but they’re played with an unexpected awkwardness that makes the events feel, if not real, then at least more amusingly plausible than audiences are used to. It’s a playful motion picture with a serious undercurrent, and both of those facets of the production are presented about as fairly as a movie with serious box office aspirations could ever hope to achieve. Jack Reacher is kick-ass, hilarious, and a little more thoughtful than we have come to expect from this kind of material. It’s so good that I got through this entire review without a single handjob pun. Dear god, these things write themselves. “Jack” and “Reacher?” Together, in the same title? The internet’s going to have a field day, and here I am, staying inside, doing my f*cking homework. How old-fashioned.