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Movie Curiosities: Jack Reacher

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I've grown increasingly disillusioned with Tom Cruise over the past few years, though I'm not sure I could pin down exactly why. His continued affiliation with the "Church" of Scientology doesn't help, though that's really just a symptom of his annoying tabloid antics. I've never had much patience for the manufactured drama of gossip rags, nor do I have any fondness for "celebrities" who spend more time on magazine covers than on sound stages. Getting back to Tom Cruise in particular, I find it somewhat laughable that he's still pushing himself as an action star despite his diminutive height and his clearly advancing age. Yes, he could easily kick my ass for saying such things, but that isn't exactly saying a lot. However, I will give Tom Cruise this much: The guy is fucking insane. That's probably a key reason for his tabloid prominence (see: the whole couch-jumping incident), but it's also his greatest asset as an actor. Nobody else in Hollywood can show that crazed glint in his eye like Cruise can, because Cruise doesn't have to fake it (see: Tropic Thunder). And lest we forget, this is the guy who suspended himself from the world's tallest building for an action scene in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol. No green screen, no stuntmen, that was actually him on location 1,700 feet in the air. Because he's goddamn nuts.

So here's Jack Reacher, the latest attempt at an action franchise for Tom Cruise. I really wasn't sure how to feel about this one, since the trailers offered me absolutely nothing to go on except "Tom Cruise is insane," and "Tom Cruise is a badass." I probably would have erred on the side of giving this film a pass, but it's a slow weekend in movies and the critical reception was good enough that I decided it was worth a look.

The film begins with a public shooting in which five seemingly random people are killed by a long-range sniper. All the evidence points to James Barr (Joseph Sikora), formerly a military sniper in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, some bureaucratic screw-up put Barr in the same room as a bunch of violent convicts, all of whom rendered Barr comatose. As such, the suspect is unable to furnish any information as to his innocence or guilt, much less stand trial. His sole testimony is a cryptic note that he wrote while being interrogated: "Get Jack Reacher."

Reacher (Tom Cruise, naturally) is a former Army Military Police officer who has an unfriendly past with Barr. He's been living off the grid for several years, but seeing Barr's name in the news prompted him to go and make sure the sniper gets convicted. Instead, he's recruited to act as an investigator for Barr's attorney (Helen Rodin, played by Rosamund Pike) and tasked with getting Barr off death row. I should also add that Helen's father (played by Richard Jenkins) just happens to be the District Attorney and is pressing for Barr to get the needle.

The film would have you believe that it's a suspense thriller, focused on a detective unraveling a mystery while being chased by some unknown conspiracy. But let's cut the crap, shall we? For all intents and purposes, Reacher is Superman. He's immune from all harm, he's a world-class martial artist, he's an expert with every weapon and vehicle known to man, and he's smart enough to make impossible leaps of logic. He is an Action Hero.

By comparison, let's take a look at the villain. The Zec (Werner Herzog, of all people) is a sadistic old man with a vaguely Eastern European accent who chewed off eight of his own fingers while doing time in a Serbian prison. He of course has a badass henchman whom Reacher inevitably faces in one-on-one combat. We've also got the hard-nosed detective (Emerson, played by David Oyelowo) and Jenkins' heartless District Attorney, one or both of whom may be in league with our villain.

The characters are all two-dimensional, the dialogue is corny, the plot is loaded with holes, and the score hits you right away with how overbearing it is. There's no point in pretending that this is anything other than a brainless action film, though the movie does occasionally try.

Early on, for example, Helen meets with the victims' families in an effort to offer her condolences and to learn more about them. I'll admit that this eventually leads to some important plot developments, and it does carry a certain emotional weight (especially in light of... *ahem* recent events). On the other hand, the sequence sticks out like a sore thumb amid two hours of shallow thrills. The same could be said of a brief monologue in which Reacher talks about civilian life here versus military life overseas. These are mental and emotional themes that the movie simply wasn't equipped to explore, and the filmmakers were foolish for trying. It does nothing but pad the 130-minute runtime and muddle whatever tone the film was going for.

That said, the film's the film's action scenes are very impressive. The fight scenes are surprisingly well-choreographed and the car chase is remarkably solid. The film even manages a few clever twists, like the two large thugs who are crammed into such a small space that they end up doing more damage to each other than to Reacher. The gunfights, however, were rather lackluster. I spent the climactic shootout marveling at the utter lack of accuracy on display from the good guys and bad guys alike, just before Reacher makes a shot that even 007 would've called impossible. Seriously, WTF?

The cast is something of a mixed bag. Tom Cruise and Werner Herzog both rightfully play their characters as larger than life, and it looks like they're having fun in the process. Similarly, it seems that Robert Duvall enjoyed himself in his brief role here. David Oyelowo turns in decent work, though it's not exactly anything to write home about. Richard Jenkins clearly held back, though it's not like this role was worth his full potential anyway. Noteworthy actors in the supporting cast include Jai Courtney, Joseph Sikora, and Alexia Fast, all of whom do quite well for themselves.

Finally, I have to talk about Rosamund Pike. After giving the matter a great deal of thought, I've concluded that Pike is a mediocrity with a pretty face. That's not to say she's a bad actor, however, because that would mean a movie would be made worse by her involvement. No, Pike is a true mediocrity in that she contributes nothing and takes nothing away. She's a placeholder, nothing more.

To be fair, it's not like Helen was such a great character to begin with. Her sole defining trait is that she's an idealist who believes that everyone -- even a cold-hearted killer -- deserves a fair trial. Though she is made a damsel in distress later on, Helen doesn't even have the distinction of acting as a love interest. There isn't a lot to this character, yet I feel like there's just enough to Helen that a better actress might have been able to craft her into something more worthwhile. At the very least, a better actress might have been able to generate some plausible chemistry with Tom Cruise.

On a technical level, the visuals range from passable to awful. In particular, the film has a nasty habit of abusing close-up shots and stitching them together with spastic editing. This is most annoying at the start of the film, though the problem does crop up in a few other scenes.

Jack Reacher is not a complete failure. The action sequences are solid, Tom Cruise makes for a satisfying larger-than-life protagonist, and the mystery unfolds in a compelling -- if implausible -- way. When judged as a brainless and superficial action film, it's quite good. Unfortunately, this only makes the film's attempts at thematic depth all the more embarrassing.

If you're tired of all the Oscar bait and you need an action fix... well, go watch Skyfall. It's still playing in most theaters. If that's somehow not an option and you absolutely can't wait another four days for Django Unchained, then go ahead and give this one a try.

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