Does Tom Cruise's incarnation of Lee Child's popular hero suggest the launch of a new franchise, or is it a pale retread of Mission: Impossible terrain?
Warning: Spoilers below!
Throughout the entire running time of Jack Reacher, I found myself repeatedly scratching my head as I tried to put my finger on the vital ingredient that seemed to be absent. A big screen adaptation featuring the title character of Lee Child's highly successful action thrillers should have been a runaway success. The Bourne series proved that it is possible to transplant an action hero from the page to the screen, establishing a multiplex juggernaut capable of steering the genre in new directions (and you can't help but notice that Daniel Craig's James Bond is heavily reactive to Matt Damon's career-invigorating depiction of Jason Bourne).
Not to mention that Lee Child's Jack Reacher yarns are some of the most popular out there. Since the character was first introduced in The Killing Floor back in 1997, Child has established himself in the same category as writers like George R. R. Martin and Stephen King who take up multiple shelves with their chunky, well-received tomes in bookstores around the world. It was only a matter of time before the mysterious Jack Reacher was given celluloid treatment.
What a shame, then, that it somehow doesn't quite hold together as well as it should. As the film raced towards its climax I realised part of what the problem was: the music, or rather the lack of a unifying Jack Reacher score. For the opening act of what is likely to be a popular film franchise, there was no tune to tap my foot to, no auditory 'trigger' that seemed to represent the charisma of the central character.
Some would (quite rightly) point out that the film is an action thriller, not a musical, but you have only to think of James Bond to realise that a good film score elevates the status of the hero it serves. The Bourne franchise also has this. All the films are linked by a very distinctive score, but more importantly, you need only hear five seconds of Moby's Extreme Ways before you're catapulted into Jason Bourne's unique brand of espionage. Like their respective heroes, these 'themes' have a power that works on your subconscious long after you've left the cinema. Jack Reacher lacks this, to its detriment.
This brings me on to the second gripe I have with the film - and that is the seemingly unstoppable Tom Cruise. He's probably the biggest film star in the world, and therein lies the problem. He brings his A-game to the film and quickly tramples into the gravel any suggestion that his days as an action hero are at an end. The issue is that for a character who is meant to seem elusive, unpredictable and anonymous, we simply know Tom Cruise too well. When he appears on screen, he brings with him our collective knowledge of the characters he has betrayed over several decades, from Interview with the Vampire to Magnolia.
|Robert Duvall (right) teaches Tom Cruise a thing or two in Jack Reacher|
Add to that the Mission: Impossible franchise, and you can't help but feel that Cruise's presence is counter-productive - we the audience are experts when it comes to his resume, and so he is never even given the opportunity to create an authentic characterisation for Jack Reacher.
'Who are you?' he is repeatedly asked in the film.
'He's TOM CRUISE!' I wanted to shout at the screen. 'Have none of you seen 'Top Gun'?'
I understand the reasons behind Cruise's casting, and he doesn't put a foot wrong in the film. His presence is guaranteed to ensure it earns a very healthy box office, but it skates so close to being Mission: Impossible 4.5 that I do worry that this installment will be swallowed up and forgotten amidst other, more distinctive entities in his vast action hero catalogue. There are several young Hollywood actors on the membrane of superstardom who could have helped the film feel like more of a maiden voyage rather than an intermission.
That said, the story itself succeeds on many levels, no doubt due to the presence of the highly underappreciated Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects. The film opens with one of the more interesting action film openers of recent years, a first-person multiple assassination that feels eerily like any console shooter game on the market. It initially appears that the shooter is looking for someone, then seems to turn into a random act of violence, but later veers back the other way. I'm not (yet) an expert on the source material so I am unsure if this aspect of the plot is present in Child's novel One Shot, the Reacher novel on which this film is based. But it works well at establishing Jack Reacher's greatest strength: its knowledge of and willingness to subvert the genre it belongs to.
As such we see Reacher's smart, perceptive deduction as his imagination reenacts the killings. It's at these moments that the film is at its most entertaining, essentially a feature-length Mission: CSI. Reacher's resourcefulness in deduction overlaps with his action skills, as we later see him beat one intimidating heavy into unconscious using the head of his fellow (rather stupid) thug.
'That's a quick response time, officers,' Reacher says with a smirk as police cars converge on a fight scene that only reached its end five seconds prior. It's in these scenes that McQuarrie gets to play with his all his toys, subtly winking to his audience while feeding them the action sequences they've come to expect.
If the final act falls a little flat, it's because the film sacrifices these subtle winks for all out carnage. In the middle of a well-staged Battle of the Snipers, I was taken back to something Jack Reacher said earlier in the film that suddenly gained great significance. Reacher theorised that people often mistook a sniper's skill as a sign of intelligence, failing to realise that it was often just training in masquerade. Although it doesn't come through clearly enough in the finale, I felt that this was essentially Jack Reacher's underlying message: that malevolence is not the same as wisdom, and if you can learn to tell the difference, you can beat the bad guys.
Although this message was watered down in Reacher's final, lacklustre showdown with Werner Herzog's 'The Prisoner', it intrigued me enough to convince me to try out The Killing Floor, One Shot and a few other Jack Reacher novels at some point this year.
The film ends ambiguously, with Jack Reacher on the run and the hint of a sequel at some point in the future. But as the credits rolled I couldn't help but feel that this wasn't the bold series opener it promised to be, but more like a backdoor pilot for a TV series. I would very much like to delve into Jack Reacher territory some time soon, so let's hope this is the first of many and not simply a 'one shot' wonder.
What did you think of 'Jack Reacher'? Did Tom Cruise live up to fan expectations of Lee Child's popular hero?
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