With films like “Jack Reacher,” hitting stores in a sharp Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack from Paramount, questions are rarely related to the action or entertainment value. Both are there, loud and clear. Instead, the questions typically relate to things like the screenplay, acting performances and overall tone exhibited. There’s quite a bit happening in this title, and for the most part, it’s likable and enjoyable. But a few negatives stick out prominently enough to hold “Jack Reacher” back from being great.
Thanks to some casual internet research, I’ve learned that Jack Reacher the character was first a lead in several books by British author Jim Grant writing under the pen name Lee Child. More or less a former US Army police officer who has turned into a drifter, Reacher makes his way from place to place in search of those who have committed horrific acts so he can provide his own unique justice. Portrayed by Tom Cruise in the feature film, Reacher holds quite a few attributes on screen that overlap those in Grant’s novels: he more or less doesn’t exist, keeps a low profile, uses public transportation, and has incredible physical stamina. Cruise is hardly as tall as the novel’s Reacher, however (5 ft., 7 in. versus 6 ft., 5 in.), a seemingly minute detail in the grand scheme of things.
What we’re given as viewers is a plot with more than one complication and characters who are interesting but not necessarily all that deep. The story here is compelling enough to make sense, and it’s told in a manner that keeps one’s attention. But it isn’t executed with consistent pacing, and when juxtaposed with a below average script and some lacking supporting performances, “Jack Reacher” is fun to take in but not terribly engaging beyond its surface.
“Jack Reacher” opens with a sniper murdering five people as they wander along a river trail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) arrives to head the crime scene investigation, and gathers evidence that points to a former US Army sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora) as the suspect. Upon his arrest and during a meeting with District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins), Barr scribbles the phrase “Get Jack Reacher” on a legal pad. Shockingly, Reacher (Cruise) appears shortly thereafter, only to rub elbows with Rodin and Emerson in the wrong manner but simultaneously get defense attorney Helen Rodin’s (Rosamund Pike) attention.
We learn that the District Attorney rarely, if ever, loses a case, and that Helen, who just so happens to be his daughter, wants to keep Barr from the death penalty. She picks Reacher’s brain a bit in an effort to learn more about his relationship with Barr, only to learn that Reacher knows more than meets the eye. He reveals that Barr committed some horribly violent crimes during his time in the Middle East, and that his actions (covered up by the government, of course) made Reacher promise that he’d come after him should anything similar occur again.
Through some probably unnecessary interactions, Reacher and Helen learn from one another that there was really one intended victim during the initial shooting, that Barr might be innocent and that a pretty shady Russian gang who takes over large scale construction jobs and masquerades their work as legitimate is very invested in seeing them both out of the picture. “Jack Reacher” executes its 130-minute run time with several plot lines coming together, including the chief Russian bad guy, The Zec (Werner Herzog), sending every dirty henchman he’s got after our protagonists, Reacher and Helen exhibiting some rather awkward sexual tension and Robert Duvall making a brief appearance as a retired military sharp shooter who comes out of retirement to make a point about loyalty.
Obviously, there’s quite a bit happening here. Is it too much? Probably. “Jack Reacher” isn’t horribly well paced, with several attempts at dramatic interactions awkwardly placed around car chases and Russian gangster dealings. The result is essentially action that delivers in an elementary sense and drama that has a larger role than it really needs to make its presence known. Is this story about Reacher and his ruthlessness? Helen and her need to show up her father with her polished legal skills? Commentary about the American military and its influence on one’s life after completing service? There are many perspectives on the table, and because they all compete with one another excessively, we’re left wondering which story is the one that deserves our undivided attention.
In the lead role, Cruise shines. He brings a physical and intellectual prowess to the character, so much so that you quickly realize if there were a terrible war or conflict, you’d want him to be on your side. The character is slick enough to make you laugh or smile periodically, and there are few moments where he isn’t in control. If there is a downside to Cruise’s efforts, it’s probably that his work, as powerful as it has become over years, now indirectly overshadows those on screen next to him. It matters not which other leading males were cast in “Jack Reacher.” This is Cruise’s role, and he wears it with nothing short of pride and skill.
Supporting roles can’t shine at a desirable level anywhere close, especially if they have a Y chromosome. Oyelowo’s portrayal of a backstabbing cop isn’t as focal, and it shows during a mildly inspired performance. Aside from Jenkins and Duvall, you may hardly recognize other leading actors, especially given Cruise’s skill set. Pike holds her own in the female lead, but is disappointingly portrayed in a somewhat narrowly gendered manner. Sure, she’s a lawyer with a strong resume, but in the end, she needs Reacher far more than he needs her. She battles to stand up to her father and tries ever so hard to push back against the men who want to bring her down. We’re supposed to believe Reacher and Helen are a team that wants the same thing, but it’s much more his film than it is hers.
Christopher McQuarrie adapted the Jack Reacher character for the screen, wrote the script and directed the film. His surprisingly sparse filmography is telling if you look at the titles, and I suppose it’s not all that out of the blue that his work here is good, but not great. Cruise has quite a few lines that feel all over the place, especially those often witty one or two sentence jabs and insults. Everyone else in “Jack Reacher” either talks too much or not at all, including Pike’s character, who sounds like she’s always breathing deeply and getting over a case of laryngitis. The obvious is hardly stated, the subtle is overstated and the verbage comes off as too rehearsed and textbook for its own good.
As an action thriller, “Jack Reacher” doesn’t miss a beat. But there are enough bumps in the road that it uses to travel on which feel basically unavoidable, and after a while, they become more like pot holes you’re hoping won’t goof up your alignment. Films like this are hard to write about because there are so many details that can potentially be given away, but I’m not convinced that, once you see the film and know those details, you’ll be fonder of what you experienced. “Jack Reacher” is pretty good, but it could have been fantastic with a few screws tightened to solidify and strengthen its foundation.
The film’s Blu-ray presentation is extremely strong. I very much enjoyed the sharp 2.35:1 1080p High Definition image, which popped with bright colors and offered a depressing connotation as it brought forth darks. Shot on location in Pittsburgh, “Jack Reacher” uses a strong urban theme to help its sets and cinematography offer forward some increased believability. Little to no grain is evident, and the on screen image has no trouble keeping its clarity at a high level from start to finish. Caleb Deschanel was behind the cinematography here, and his work in tight spaces like bathrooms, auto parts store offices and construction zone trailers is excellent, creative and well lit.
An ear piercing English 7.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is mighty good, too. While everything from footsteps to gunfire to screeching tires and sirens is very easy to hear, there are moments where spoken words are less clear than one may anticipate. It’s a detail I believe to be important, and while it’s obviously more critical in films where the screenplay is stronger, it’s perhaps this title’s single audio flaw. The music selections are well-placed and compliment the visuals rather well. Additional audio options are French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1s, while subtitle offerings include English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
Two audio commentaries are provided, one with actor Cruise and director McQuarrie, the second with composer Joe Kraemer. Three featurettes are provided: “When the Man Comes Around,” “You Do not Mess with Jack Reacher: Combat & Weapons,” and “The Reacher Phenomenon.” In a less than surprising twist, these, like the film itself, aren’t horribly deep or developed. Standard definition DVD, UltraViolet and Digital Copy versions are also provided, as are two “special offers.” One provides a $10 sport ticket discount through Ticketmaster.com, and the other grants access to a chapter of the next Jack Reacher novel. I found these nifty add ons, but perplexing choices. I mean, the $10 coupon will probably get eaten up in internet service fees, while the ad for the next novel has pictures of paperback editions on it rather than recommendations to download the titles on your iPhone or Android device. Bah.
A Final Word:
“Jack Reacher” has plenty going for it, and I enjoyed it more than this review might actually indicate. It needed just a little more polish to be great, however, and the foundation has one too many issues that weaken rather than strengthen it. Cruise is in the zone, and without him, we’d have had major issues. Dueling storylines hurt rather than help its cause, and while it entertains, it doesn’t exactly impress.