JACK REACHER is the rare film that sharpens your senses. Exiting the theater, you find yourself walking brisker, thinking clearer, and having added energy to re-enter your life. You could call it a Red Bull film. Or a Five Hour Energy movie.
Unlike most movies these days that leave you feeling like you’ve just eaten at McDonalds — bloated and with a small stomach ache — it’s made by craftsman who understand and employ the language of cinema story. It’s a smart noir, with one of Tom Cruise’s best performances, and here’s six reasons I loved it (not in order of importance).
1. It’s one of Tom Cruise’s strongest performances. For my money, Cruise is best when centered and relaxed as an actor; worst when he’s tight, mannered, and showy. I like the guy, but when the movie star side of him takes over a role, it’s a little too much sometimes. But when the character actor in him leads the way (usually when he’s paired with the strongest directors), it results in films like Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men, and Magnolia.
2. The script shows more than it tells…and when it does tell, it’s smart, witty, and funny. It’s written by Christopher McQuarrie, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who also directs the film, utilizing all the filmmaking tools to tell a great story. He doesn’t rely on dialogue. He opens the film with ten minutes of images. When he does use dialogue, it’s pointed, necessary and economical. In other scenes, such as the one at the bus stop, he uses the movement of the character in the scene to more eloquently end it than any flashy quip could.
3. In a surprise turn, this film humanizes its innocent victims of violence. Early in the film, Reacher asks his partner to interview the families of the innocents killed – and the proceeding montage makes human, alive, and of consequence characters that other actions films treat as ‘body counts.’ It reminds you that death isn’t anonymous and that victims aren’t nameless. It also humanizes Reacher, reflecting his view on violence. He’s still a killer, but not the robotic, kill-for-sport character often featured in action films.
4. McQuarrie writes characters like he’s a playwright or a screenwriter from the Golden Age of Hollywood who trained in theater. Reacher is introduced with care, building his reputation before we ever seen him. The female lead (played by Rosamund Pike) could have been written for Lauren Bacall. She’s smart, tough, and sexy without falling into the modern glam-girl cliché. The villain is genius casting and Robert Duvall (often thrown away in cameo parts in other films) is given enough space in his scenes to create a real rhythm and connection with Reacher. Put simply, all of the actors come out of this film looking fantastic, which is a tribute to McQuarrie as both visual and verbal storyteller.
5. There’s actually a relatable theme among all this! It centers on the American ideal of freedom. Reacher strikes at the hypocrisy of the freest nation by asking how many Americans truly are free — not saddled by debt, despair, and a whole list of other things. It’s why he lives the way he does, traveling by Greyhound, paying by cash, carrying no luggage, having no email, cell phone, or possessions (he even purchases a new set of used clothes in every town he enters – depositing the old ones in the donation box on his way out!). In reaching for a truly ‘free’ life, Jack rejects many of the material things that keep us from being free. Now, there’s a great discussion to be had about whether he really is free, and whether physical freedom and spiritual freedom are the same thing, but the film poses an idea worth considering. It also has something to say about justice. In having Reacher killing the unjust rather than turn them over to the law, it calls attention to the uncomfortable reality that American justice is sometimes corrupted and co-opted until the innocent are punished for the guilty.
6. There’s a great car chase — made more excellent by the restraint evident from saving it for the last third of the film and by doing it ‘real’, with practical stunts (and 17 destroyed cars of the same model) and car-mounted cameras instead of computer animated shots. And, unlike the Bourne films, it’s not edited to give you whiplash – you can actually follow the course of the car chase. It also has a spectacular conclusion, which I won’t ruin here except to say that it ends with a proverbial ‘whisper’ instead of a bang (a nod, really) and this ‘whisper’ gives more bang than any Michael Bay bang.
It’s odd that this film is receiving so much negative press at the time of its release. It does have the unfortunate timing of being released post-Sandy shootings, and there continues to be a strong anti-Cruise sentiment in the media, but it’s ridiculous to criticize the film for not casting an actor that matches the physical description of the hero in the source books – blonde, 6’5”, buff, etc. Not only, as the film makers have stated, is there no actor matching that description, those characteristics work against the character’s effectiveness. Reacher is a guy who likes to be anonymous, to slip in and out unnoticed, to be an everyman that can travel anywhere to dispense his justice. How anonymous and inconspicuous is a buff, blonde 6 foot 5 guy? Would it have been a better film starring Thor? Cruise’s height and look is more functional for the character than the author’s original description and makes for a better, more believable film.