Ask Questions Later, by David Bax
Given recent events here in America, it’s unfortunate that the inciting incident of Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is a mass, seemingly random shooting that leaves five innocent and ostensibly unconnected citizens dead on a Pittsburgh sidewalk. Disturbing as those opening images are, the queasiness is quickly alleviated when it becomes clear that the film is not taking place in our reality but on the smart, hardboiled, darkly humorous terrain of McQuarrie’s mind.
After the shooting, the police quickly apprehend their suspect, who will say nothing other to instruct them to “get Jack Reacher.” Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a former military cop who disappeared without a trace after leaving the service two years prior. Though it’s a mystery, at first, why the man in custody wants Reacher in town, there is at least one faction – a shady criminal cabal led by a disfigured German man (filmmaker Werner Herzog) – that would very strongly prefer he leave.
Reacher’s presence isn’t entirely welcomed by law enforcement either, which is represented by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins). Rodin’s private lawyer daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike), however, believes his skills can help her get a good deal for her client, the alleged shooter. The film is Cruise’s show and he’s intensely focused and believable in the part (not to mention very funny) but by casting cineaste darling Herzog, as well as weathered character actors like Jenkins and Robert Duvall, McQuarrie is making a point. This is not to be a slick and showy, antiseptic action thriller as disposable as the one that will surely come out next month. This is a low-tech, old-fashioned, badass brawler, shot on celluloid like the tough cop films of the 1970’s and the no-nonsense noir films of the 1940’s.
Those who saw McQuarrie’s only previous directorial effort, the underrated but dry The Way of the Gun from 2000, won’t be surprised by those referential touches. Jack Reacher is similarly postmodern in that its characters seem coldly resigned to their cinematic roles in life and also in some of the more heightened set-pieces that are as delightful as they are self-consciously improbable. One scene has Reacher accosted by two men in a small room, one wielding a metal baseball bat and one a crowbar. They swing away and eagerly connect with the walls, the furniture and each other more than they do Jack, in the process hilariously doing most of the physical work for him. Yet when that sequence turns the corner from comedy to brutality, it’s clear that McQuarrie is playing with your expectations, surprising you wherever he can.
That switch from clever winking to straightforward violence illustrates the chief difference between this film and The Way of the Gun. For all its meta, intellectual tricks, it’s a much more lively and visceral action film. It contains tension, hand to hand combat and one hell of a car chase that are all just as exciting as they are witty.
One of the influences McQuarrie seems to be most heavily quoting is that of Mickey Spillane, the pulp noir author who created the character Mike Hammer, featured in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. Like Hammer, Reacher tends to turn to violence as a first resort. And, though he’s ultimately on the side of good, he’s not a particularly nice person. One of the more unfortunate traits picked up from Hammer – and one of the film’s few regrettable elements – is a mode of talking to women that is, to put it softly, ungentlemanly.
Other than that and some wobbly, thematic bullshit about what it means to be a prisoner and what it means to be free, Jack Reacher hits very few false notes. This is mostly because it doesn’t allow itself much room for mistakes. Its violence may be severe but it’s never baroque. The action, like the plot, is ruthless and straightforward and the result is a film that is as refreshingly lean and utilitarian as its lead character.