Before we get into the matter of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, we must first address the issue of the man actually playing Jack Reacher. Resolved: Tom Cruise has absolutely nothing in common physically with author Lee Child's crime-solving ex-military drifter. Cruise is famously diminutive; Reacher is famously tall and physically imposing, with huge shoulders and giant biceps. Cruise is dark-haired and handsome; Reacher, in the books, is fair-haired and rough-featured. For much of his career, Cruise's greatest asset was his smile, something Reacher seems incapable of doing — an idea that this new film, to its credit, actually plays with. Cruise was, once upon a time, American popular cinema's optimistic golden boy; now his Reacher is practically pursued by a cloud of gloom as he crisscrosses the country and gets in scrapes.
Nevertheless, in 2012's not-particularly well-received Jack Reacher, Cruise effectively channeled, at least for the film's first half, Reacher's no-nonsense testiness. The ping-ponging dialogue of that film created a nice mood of muted but engagingly pissy paranoia. Nobody seemed to like each other — not a bad atmosphere for a crime thriller. (The less said about that film's inane second half, however, the better.) And Cruise demonstrated both restraint and weary charm as Reacher.
Watching him, you got the sense that this onetime heartthrob had finally come to terms with the fact that his audience now consisted largely of middle-aged men. Jack Reacher was directed by Christopher McQuarrie, a screenwriter-turned-director who understands the dramatic potential of dialogue and knows how to stage a silent set piece; he's got an austere streak, unusual in American blockbuster auteurs. (He also turned out to be an inspired choice for Cruise's fifth Mission: Impossible movie, a franchise that runs on inspired director choices.)
Which brings us to Ed Zwick, who has taken over the reins for this second film, and who is basically the opposite of all that, a master of canned sentiment and prefab style — a guy who hasn't met an emotion he hasn't tried to milk, a tear he hasn't tried to jerk, a set piece he hasn't tried to overdo. That shamelessness sometimes works, as in his powerful Civil War epic Glory. Often, it doesn't (see: The Siege, Blood Diamond and the howlingly ludicrous Legends of the Fall).
I could, at first, understand why Zwick was chosen, as this story asks for a bit more emotional investment from the normally stoic Reacher. This time, the hero heads back to Virginia to finally meet Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), the younger (and, of course, beautiful) Army major who took over Reacher’s old desk. He finds that she's been arrested for espionage, and — Reacher, being Reacher — sets out to save her, prove her innocence and uncover the guilty parties. Also complicating matters is a teenager named Samantha Dutton (Danika Yarosh), who may or may not be the daughter Reacher never knew he had. These three are thrust together by necessity, and must contend with a series of military contractor goons coming after them, all led by the Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), a sneering hitman who is Terminator-like in his efficiency.
There’s no mystery, and the action is thoroughly disposable, but what works this time around are the interactions between Reacher and Turner, mostly thanks to the efforts of Smulders, who brings an impassioned frustration to her character. As a military investigator herself — basically, she’s a younger version of Reacher — Turner is tuned into the low-boil sexism of the men around her. That includes Reacher; the film’s high point is an argument they have over which of them will go out on a dangerous mission and which will stay behind in the hotel and take care of Samantha. There’s something touching about the fact that Reacher can’t quite keep up with the times, or that she’s always guarded, even with him. “Are you more upset that I treated you like a woman, or that I treated you like a man?” he asks.
Still, the elegant austerity of the first Reacher film is gone, and I wish I could say it has been replaced with something else — overt melodrama, or bitter humor, or breathless action. Cruise is still solid in the part. You can tell he loves playing this guy, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him give it another shot. But Zwick does his star no favors by mostly steamrolling over the film's quieter moments and phoning in the fight scenes and car chases. The feel for the epic that once gave this director’s films a pop grandeur is also gone. He's made a totally anonymous movie, devoid of personality or interest.
That's fatal, because Jack Reacher, as a novel series, is all personality. The conspiracies and crimes Reacher undoes are rarely of the monumental or spectacular variety; in fact, they're often pretty predictable. What keeps us interested is the hard-assed charm of Reacher himself, the tight beauty of his curt exchanges with the people he meets, even the ones he likes. McQuarrie, for all the first film's flaws, understood that basic fact, and knew enough to indulge it — for far longer than most mainstream movies would allow. At the time, it seemed like a pleasant, albeit uneven, surprise. After this second one, it seems like a god damned miracle.
One final note: I saw Jack Reacher: Never Go Back in a Regal theater that utilized these newfangled (and expensive) 4DX seats — the ones that rock and rumble and jolt and glide around and blow air in your face during particularly “exciting” moments. (I turned the “water” option off, because I didn’t feel like getting splashed in the face by an Ed Zwick movie.) I did so of my own volition, but this 4DX business turns out to very much not be my thing; the experience was akin to having a terrible bowel movement while getting kicked in the back by the guy sitting behind me. I can see this technology having some appeal during certain disaster movies. But watching Jack Reacher: Never Go Back in a seat that fought back against me whenever someone fired a gun or revved an engine or threw a punch, I found myself appreciating the earlier film’s quiet, steely confidence that much more.