Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jack Reacher Movie Review

It has been so long since I’ve been both truly surprised and genuinely thrilled at the movies that I’d almost forgotten the feeling, but Jack Reacher reminded me of exactly the reason why I love sitting in a darkened cinema several dozen times a year. It is not the best movie I’ve ever seen. It’s not even the best movie I’ve seen this year. But it did exactly what I expect an action thriller to do and it did it competently, excitingly, originally, and without pandering to the lowest common denominator audience members. I loved this movie. I loved it almost unequivocally. I loved it for all the reasons it could have been a standard genre film, but wasn’t. Loved it for all the ways it managed to enthrall me from one minute to the next. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the hugely popular (though not well-liked by me) The Usual Suspects, adapted the story from the eponymous character created by author Lee Child and more specifically from one of the sixteen books featuring Jack Reacher as the main character.

Reacher is one of those iconic characters who exists only in popular fiction. He’s an ex-Military Police investigator, raised entirely in military institutions, who has now become a loner and a ghost. He has no fixed residence, no credit cards, no driving license, and no steady paycheck. He is in prime physical condition, has an impeccable memory for details, and a keen investigative eye for details that other people miss. Oh yeah, and he can ably dispatch multiple opponents in hand-to-hand combat. There’s been some hay made by fans of the book series that the Childs character is supposed to be 6’ 5” and weigh about 220lbs, but he’s played in the movie by the more diminutive Tom Cruise. What Cruise brings to the role, if not physical size, is a stoicism and temperament that brings Reacher off the page to full breathing life in a motion picture. I can’t recall another Tom Cruise role that requires him to smile less often and never asks him for the Cruise freak out evident when he quits his job in Jerry Maguire, becomes frustrated over K-Mart underwear in Rain Man, or professes his love for Katie Holmes on Oprah’s couch. It’s a classic Tom Cruise action character because, as usual, he does his own stunts, including a car chase inspired by Steve McQueen in Bullitt that should rank indelibly among the best in cinema, but he’s not the action superman of the Mission: Impossible series.

That brings me to the realism of Jack Reacher, which depicts fight scenes that hew a little closer to what you might expect in reality than most action films have conditioned us to believe. A melee skirmish between Reacher and five opponents in the street lasts about one-fifth the time it would in most other films. And his final bout of fisticuffs with his primary target is over before you have a chance to settle into it, being so accustomed to those final combat scenes lasting several minutes and involving head blow upon head blow through which the characters continue to impossibly rise to their feet. When Reacher gets hit hard in the body, he doubles over and stumbles like any normal man would. He shows his weariness after feats that require great expenditure of energy. This is as refreshing as the absence of pounding sound effects to enhance punches and kicks.

Reacher comes in to assist defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) in the investigation of the random killing of five people with a sniper rifle. We know, because we’ve seen the crime committed at the start of the film, that James Barr, the man in custody, is innocent of these particular charges even if his own past contains cold-blooded murder that went unpunished. Reacher’s personal history with Barr leaves him happy to see Barr imprisoned, but his sense of fairness and justice compels him to act when he discovers holes in the investigation. Was this a simple random shooting of innocent people or was there a specific target? The lead detective (David Oyelowo) and District Attorney (Richard Jenkins), who also happens to be Helen’s father, are happy to have an open and shut case with a preponderance of evidence to handily convict Barr.

Through McQuarrie’s capable writing, Jack Reacher becomes a throwback to a style of filmmaking that values atmosphere over thrills. As a director, McQuarrie understands that creating mood through crafty editing, restrained performances, and a less-is-more writing style generates as much in the way of thrills as the latest “slam-bang non-stop action thriller,” but it’s so much more satisfying because the film earns those thrills. I love that the central mystery is not about who committed the crime at the beginning, but rather why it was committed and how it will be covered up.

This is a well-made modern film noir that instills constant feelings of dread and trepidation, partially aided by the presence of German film director Werner Herzog as the criminal overlord known only as The Zec (Russian for ‘prisoner’). This is man with the stare of a dead man, a man who has a past so brutal he once had to chew off his own fingers to survive in a Siberian gulag. He has an unforgiving sense of loyalty and is one of the most frightening villains in recent memory. Herzog should play every movie villain. His sharply accented monotone drone is deeply chilling. He is the perfect noir villain and the logical extension of McQuarrie’s invention Keyser Söze, who, seventeen years ago, was a lame attempt at crafting a mysterious and mythical über-villain.

McQuarrie’s screenplay crackles with witty and often hysterical dialogue. With lines like, “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot,” Reacher often speaks in the hard-boiled style of classic noir heroes. Lines like that could be played for ironic laughs, but Cruise utters them with dead-on severity, and we believe his character means it because he lives by a strict moral code of his own devising. Reacher doesn’t have a strong character arc and even at the end he continues to make decisions that most reasonably moral people would find questionable. He’s easy to side with, which makes him a great movie hero, but McQuarrie gives him complexity. He’s also not a one-man army. He calls in the help of a gun range owner and ex-Marine, played by Robert Duvall, for an assist in the final showdown.

At nearly every turn, Jack Reacher insistently defies genre conventions, from the fight scenes to the absence of a burgeoning romance between Reacher and Helen – a basic Hollywood necessity in virtually every action film involving a male hero and a female in distress. My eyes were constantly fixed on the screen and I was clamoring for more, which is a refreshing feeling to have in this age of cinematic sensory overload. If Jack Reacher is to become a franchise, the only downsides are that Cruise, at age 50, is already aging out of this type of role, and that it will be extraordinarily difficult to meet my expectations in a second film.

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