Jack Reacher, while not a huge box-office hit, was a pleasant cinematic surprise four years ago. For a Tom Cruise action movie, it felt surprisingly low-fi and gritty — a fun B-movie featuring an A-list star. Folks who loved it (including yours truly) prayed for a sequel. Well, you know what they say: Be careful what you wish for.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back drops everything that made the first film unique and plays as the kind of generic military thriller John Travolta might have starred in 15 years ago. The mistakes start with giving badass, lone-wolf drifter Jack Reacher (Cruise) an unwelcome makeshift family and pretty much keep on coming for the movie’s entire run time. The mystery Reacher is trying to solve is uninvolving. The bad guys stink. And there’s not a single action scene that comes anywhere near rivaling the original’s thrilling car chase.
This time around Reacher is trying to clear the name of Susan Turner, a female military officer (Cobie Smulders) who he’s developed a kind of long-distance relationship with over the telephone, though the two have never met. Turner has been arrested and is awaiting court martial following the deaths of two soldiers in the Middle East. Once Reacher begins his investigation, folks close to the case start turning up dead, and Jack busts Susan out of prison before she suffers the same fate. They spend the next two hours trying to clear her name while staying one step ahead of both military police and the evil private military contractor that’s really responsible for the crime.
Never Go Back is based on the 18th (!) book in Lee Child’s popular series, so I’m going to guess that in the novels, Child took his time developing the relationship between between Reacher and Susan, giving it the appropriate emotional heft when the two finally meet under less than ideal circumstances. But, in the film, the only relationship these two are given are two brief phone calls played over the opening credits. (Smulders doesn’t appear in the first film.) To expect us to believe in Reacher’s commitment to Susan after so little time borders on the ridiculous. This emotional arc of this entire film hinges on a relationship that doesn’t exist.
Then there’s a second emotional arc that’s just as obnoxious. Early on, Reacher finds out that he may have a daughter, a rebellious 15-year-old named Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who ends up a target when the villains discover her connection to Jack. She’s the worst sort of movie kid — the kind who ignores warnings, willfully endangers our heroes and spends way too much time sulking. She also inexplicably takes forever to ask what’s going on, getting dragged through several near-death experiences before bothering to inquire as to why folks are trying to kill her. (Think about what Shane Black could have done with this character and try not to throw popcorn at the screen.)
The primary antagonist is a special-forces goon with nary a shade other than pure psychopath. Director Edward Zwick (replacing Christopher McQuarrie and reteaming with Cruise 13 years after The Last Samurai) shows little interest in ramping up tension or stakes. Scenes begin with Cruise and company being tracked down and end with them slyly escaping on some sort of public transportation … over and over again in mundane repetition.
Worst of all, I wasn’t at all interested in Jack, Susan and Samantha as a team. Some lip service is paid to gender roles and Reacher coming to grips with the fact that a woman can be as tough as a man. But there are two problems with this. The first is the gratuitous scene where Smulders walks around a hotel room in a bra for no apparent reason. (Maybe, in universe, it’s meant to put her on assured, equal footing with a shirtless Tom Cruise. Sitting in the audience, it feels like a cheap reason to show off Smulders’ cleavage.) The second problem is Smulders herself. Look, this is a post-Furiosa world, and if you’re going to attempt to be badass female presence on the big screen, you need to bring it. Smulders comes across as a TV actress trying to act tough. Forget Charlize Theron; she can’t even come close to matching the wonderfully kickass Rebecca Ferguson in Cruise’s last big movie — Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
Maybe the softening of this would-be franchise was an attempt to make it more mainstream. Again, the first film didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. But, in doing so, they’ve taken away the grime and seediness that made the original Jack Reacher so interesting. (Never Go Back is not a movie you could ever imagining Werner Herzog appearing in, even though he felt right at home in the previous Reacher flick.) So, hey, I’m all good now. You’ll get no more demands for further Jack Reacher films from me.