Like millions of fans of the suspense author Lee Child, I was shocked when I heard that Tom Cruise had been tapped to play his main character, Jack Reacher. Reacher’s a loner and former military investigator who drifts from town to town, always landing in hot water and managing, through his wits and incredible physical skill set, to save the day. Reacher is taciturn (a favorite recurring sentence in the 17 novels is, “Reacher said nothing.”) but not without humor, and, oh, by the way, he’s something like 6-foot-5. But it’s not just the jarring disparity in height that makes the casting of Cruise slightly impenetrable; it’s that the literary character stands for something, believes in justice even as he has no use for the trappings of “civilization,” whereas the actor generally comes across as banal, vapid and startlingly metrosexual.
Then again, Cruise has been known to supercharge action movies into box office smashes, and clearly, this is what writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (and, according to interviews, a tactful Child) wanted in bringing the series to the screen. Cruise isn’t bad—in fact, he evokes a bit of his youthful, contagious Top Gun/Cocktail bravura—and he almost nails the right tone in a scene where Reacher puts down a Neanderthal whose head he’s about to bust open. The story, which is largely based on the novel One Shot, is fairly pedestrian: A former vet, accused of massacring five people, asks Reacher, who has his own reasons to hate him, to investigate. Throw in Helen (Rosamund Pike), a lovely and idealistic lawyer, and you’ve got the basic simmer of a romance—that is, if McQuarrie cared to toss us that bone. Strangely, he refrains from any such scenes, although the first 10 minutes are chockablock with random women giving the knowing “I’d do that” look to Reacher, as if the audience needs the reassurance that Reacher/Cruise is indeed desirable. Take that, Katie Holmes.
Unfortunately, for both Child fans and people looking for a fun adventure movie, Jack Reacher is mostly a plodding mess. The fight scenes are brisk and a car chase is shot really well, but too often, McQuarrie has his two leads standing around talking. And talking some more. Occasionally, he has Cruise lean in closer to Pike, whose character looks appropriately startled, but then, inexplicably, the moment goes, and you wonder (as Helen must be), “What?” The movie does have a neat 1970s vibe, from its use of drab Pittsburgh locations and the way the cops, notably David Oyelowo, strut their stuff, but atmosphere in and of itself doesn’t bring the tension that this movie so needed.