Jack Reacher, v1.0

We’ve been watching and enjoying the Reacher series which Amazon Prime has put out. We missed the first season when it came out, but after hearing good things about the show, went back and caught up. I will say up front, I am absolutely unfamiliar with the books written by Lee Clark, which have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. But two things surprise me about them. Firstly: there are twenty-eight novels and a short-story collection. Secondly, despite being very firmly set in America’s heartland, Clark – or, rather, the owner of the pen-name, Jim Grant – is British. He’s married to an American, so I can relate.

“At a very simple point, the Reacher stories are revenge stories. Somebody does a very bad thing, and Reacher takes revenge.” — Lee Child

But as we moved onto the second series, we remembered this was not the first iteration of the character. Back in 2012, Tom Cruise had made a film based on the character, which was popular enough to merit a sequel four years later. Having watched the show, Cruise seemed an interesting choice – Dwayne Johnson, also considered at one point, seems a better fit, for the books describe Reacher as 6’5″ and around 250 pounds. Tom Cruise is… not. Close to a foot smaller, in fact, most estimates putting him at 5’7″. Even Alan Ritchson, who plays the role for Amazon, comes up a little short at 6’2″. But he has the bulk, so when someone refers to him as a “kaiju“, it makes sense. He is compatible with Child’s thinking about the character: “Suppose the good guy is actually Goliath?”

The author made the appropriate, polite noises after the actor’s production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions, bought the rights and Tom took on the role. “Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way.” I’ll admit this may have played into vague confusion in my mind between the two Jacks: Reacher and Ryan. Both being popular book series written by authors whose surnames start with a C, adapted first into movies and then becoming an Amazon series. Cruise admittedly never played Jack Ryan. That was most famously Harrison Ford, though Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine and John Krasinski have also donned the suit, so take your pick. There’s probably a gender-swapped version, Jacqui Ryan, in pre-production.

Anyway, given our enjoyment of the show, and general appreciation for most of the work Cruise has done in the genre, we figure we should check out the earlier entries. While the first season of the series is based on the first book, the two movies were taken from the ninth and eighteenth novel respectively. However, there’s very little of an over-riding arc between them: each stands alone. As you’ll shortly see though, we were not as impressed by the movies as the TV series. Part of that may be the casting. Cruise just seems like Generic Action Dude, while Ritchson does bring something… well, larger to the role. However, those were not the only or worst problems with the movie adaptations. Read on…

Jack Reacher (2012)

Rating: C

Dir: Christopher McQuarrie
Star: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog

Having watched the entire Mission: Impossible franchise last year, I can’t help feeling this is closer to an Ethan Hunt side mission, than anything particularly original. There’s much the same mix of physicality and smarts, with a hero operating on the fringes of legality and official sanction. The main difference here is that Reacher (Cruise) is operating largely on his own, with some help from defense attorney Helen Rodin (Pike). She’s taken the case of former army sniper James Barr, charged with shooting dead five people on a Pittsburgh boardwalk. Which is awkward, because her father (Jenkins) is the DA, who is demanding the death penalty for the perpetrator. It looks a hopeless situation, until Barr calls for Reacher.

He knew the alleged shooter in Iraq, and immediately starts to pick holes in the evidence. For instance, the location chosen isn’t the one a trained shooter would select. It soon becomes clear somebody wants Reacher off the case, a fact which just concentrates his mind. That somebody is Chelovek (Herzog), a former Russian prisoner known as The Zek – it means inmate in Russian. He gnawed his own fingers off (!!) while in jail, and his lucrative urban construction swindle would be threatened if Barr is exonerated. Reacher will need the perfect mix or brawn and brains if he’s to survive and crack the case. Fortunately, Reacher pretty much is the perfect mix of brawn and brains, like Hunt. Plus the same charisma too, charming gun-range owners into compliance with a smile. Really, what are the odds?

The similarities to M:I extend beyond Cruise. McQuarrie went on from this to direct the fifth through eighth entries in that franchise, so the parallels are understandable. This is considerably more grounded, unfolding entirely in Pennsylvania, rather than Dubai. I tend to think this makes it less fun as a result, never generating the same sense of awe as, say, Hunt rappelling down the Burj Khalifa. Reacher punching out five guys in the parking lot of a Pittsburgh bar is a light thrill in comparison. It is a little unfair to match them up, though probably inevitable. Reacher does have a nice line in snark, albeit one which perhaps tends to end up escalating situations, rather than defusing them.

However, the best thing here is, inevitably, Herzog’s intense Euro-villain (Russian, German – what’s the difference?). His dialogue is pure Werner. Either the makers just gave him talking points and let him go with the flow, or whoever wrote it must have boned up on an entire box-set of DVD commentaries by Herzog. ”You say nothing, but I see defiance in your eyes, it is a look I have seen many, many times. You cannot scare me. I made five films with Klaus Kinski.” I may have made part of that up. I think I’d probably rather have seen the film about how Chelovek got from the gulag to where he is. If he only had better hiring practices, and employed competent henchmen, Reacher would never have stood a chance.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Rating: D

Dir: Edward Zwick
Star: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger

Rarely has a film’s title ever been so prophetic. The makers truly shouldn’t have gone back. The only way the title could have been more accurate would be if the film was called Jack Reacher: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. Or perhaps, for reasons of pithiness, Jack Reacher: Save Yourselves. The first movie was no great shakes, but had its moments (mostly Werner Herzog) and a reasonably well-defined plot. This feels as if Zwick watched the first film, took careful notes on what worked, then did the complete opposite. For instance, who thought that what the Jack Reacher franchise needed to pep it up, was a 15-year-old girl suffering from a chronic case of Resting Teenage Bitch Face?

The crusade on which Reacher (Cruise) is involved is, like the first, a case of someone wrongfully accused, as part of a larger conspiracy. The victim is the soldier who had been sitting in his old office, Major Susan Turner (Smulders), who has been charged with espionage following the discovery of a compromising hard-drive. Reacher breaks her out of military prison, with remarkable ease, I must say. The trio go on the run, fending off attempts to silence them, while digging into a plot to sell surplus weapons to insurgents. Trio? Oh, yeah. For he got slapped with an absent father paternity suit while hoboing about. Now tagging along is Samantha (Yarosh), who might or might not be Reacher’s daughter and please kill me now.

The film might work better if you view it as a spoof of eighties action movies, for example where fugitives are apparently able to take cross-country flights without credible ID. There’s even a scene set in an Internet Cafe, which had me genuinely checking when this was made. I don’t think I’ve seen one in the past… twenty years? Speaking of period pieces, it’s a reunion of sorts for Zwick and Cruise, who made The Last Samurai in 2003. I didn’t enjoy that either, and here there’s almost no-one I’d describe as likeable. I read another review which said this attempted “to soften and humanize the character”. Came as a shock to me, since I found Reacher considerably more of a dick. [Mind you, that review was in Slate, so…]

We also endure a huge drop-off in antagonist quality. There wasn’t much Herzog in the original, but he still loomed over proceedings like a magnificent thundercloud. His replacement, Heusinger, plays “The Hunter”, and in those same meteorological terms, makes as little impression as five minutes of lackadaisical drizzle. I could never bring myself to care about either anyone involved, or the arms trafficking. The film opens with a sequence where Reacher sits calmly in a diner post-mayhem, awaiting the arrival of the authorities. When they show up, what transpires is highly satisfying. The problem is, I’d rather have seen the movie which led up to that moment. As far as this one is concerned, it’s downhill all the way.