There’s a reason why a character like Jack Reacher – either in the films or in Lee Childs’ novels – speaks to us. Here’s a man who’s free from all obligations, a former member of the Army Military Police Corps who wants to see the country he spent so much time defending, wanting to be in the world but not a part of it. He has access to money through his military pension, but he’s not beholden to any financial institution or business, nor is he beholden to any other individual other than himself. This all may change by the time Jack Reacher: Never Go Back rolls its credits.
Four years after the events of the first film, Tom Cruise returns to inhabit Reacher’s walking shoes, playing him as guardedly as he did in the Jack Reacher franchise’s 2012 progenitor. With a stoic, unaffected countenance never betraying his thoughts or emotions, Reacher seems no worse for wear, even if we find him beaten and bloodied at the film’s opening in medias res, which leads to the rest of our story via Army Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who’s taken up residence in Reacher’s old office.
One of the differences between the hardy 2012 film and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is made plain to us right away; Reacher’s got a soft spot for Turner and vice versa, despite having only conversed on the phone. We see him smile and relax a bit at the thought of taking Turner out for dinner, which is something we haven’t seen in his filmed existence. But by the time he finally reaches Washington, D.C., Turner’s not at her desk; he’s escorted to Colonel Morgan (Holt McCallany), who tells Reacher she’s been imprisoned for espionage. Not only that, but Reacher may have a child named Samantha (Danika Yarosh), whom – along with Turner – Reacher has to protect from the people orchestrating Turner’s imprisonment and eventual attempted assassination.
In the action and sleuthing departments, Turner can definitely hold her own, not being merely a damsel in distress, as Rosamund Pike’s Helen Rodin from Jack Reacher tended to be. Smulders imbues her with an intensity and resolve which matches Cruise in near-perfect lockstep. Speaking of Cruise, he’s in his usual latter-day top form, in a near-constant run throughout the movie while casting steely-eyed glares and meting out Reacher’s brutally efficient brand of justice. Their scenes together feature a decent chemistry between them, as if they’re long-lost buddies reconnecting while ducking bullets. As a father of two, I laughed at scenes portraying their ersatz parenting of the wayward Samantha, so brattishly played by Yarosh, who combines street smarts with the know-it-all naïveté which plagues teenagers of her ilk. They make an odd family of sorts, and the clash between Reacher’s standoffish brusqueness and Turner’s nurturing, caring persona makes for great breather scenes in between chases and well-choreographed fight scenes, in which Reacher meets the opposing force with nothing more than what they themselves have in hand.
This is one of Reacher’s qualities which made readers and theater audiences appreciate the kind of character he is. Another of his unique abilities is his quick thinking and ability to solve mysteries using a type of smarts which could only be considered a mix between Sherlock Holmes and John McClane. However, this script – co-written by director Edward Zwick, Richard Wenk, and Marshall Herskovitz – chooses to skimp on the cerebral side of Reacher in favor of a more action-oriented presentation. This seems to be a problem inherent in Wenk’s scripts, having co-written this year’s remake of The Magnificent Seven, another uneven film which frontloaded its bloody action and shoved whatever brains and soul it might have had into the backseat. Zwick, Wenk, and Herskovitz’s screenplay simply cannot match Christopher McQuarrie’s script for the 2012 film, which featured better depth and characterization, winding up a fast-paced drama with action elements, the reverse of which can be claimed of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.
Another one of this film’s drawbacks is its source material, which (I’m told) the film captures well. The “Let’s Bring The Kid Into The Line Of Fire” trope is one which has never sat well with me. For instance: imagine, if you will, The Bourne Ultimatum – which I consider to be the best of the Bourne franchise – with Jason Bourne saddled with a kid he has to protect. He can’t go out and do the things we’re there to see him do, or what the story demands of him; our attentions have to be split between the hero and the idiocy which sparks numerous incidents which requires the kid to be bailed out of immediate trouble. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back flies at its best with Reacher and Turner in the driver’s seat, but slows to a maddening pace once Samantha is riding in tow.
For all of these nitpicks, however, the film carries out its mission in a workmanlike manner befitting its hero. We’re here to see Reacher protect the innocent, beat the villains, and solve the case. Edward Zwick, most known for 1989’s brilliant Civil War film Glory and the prescient terrorist drama The Siege from 1998, saves this film from being a near-parody of its predecessor by keeping the movie focused and determined, moving the proceedings along at a good clip toward its blood-and-thunder climax in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Tom Cruise can always be counted on to bring his charisma and physicality to the screen, and there’s no shortage of it here, with Cobie Smulders being a competent co-conspirator. The novel Never Go Back may not have been the best choice for the next filmed adaptation for our beloved ex-MP, but given the circumstances, Zwick and company have shaped Jack Reacher: Never Go Back into a fairly lean, proficient (if a little perfunctory in its trappings) cinematic outing which almost matches the first film in its quality.