Review: 'Jack Reacher' falls short

05:00 AM, Dec 21, 2012

Tom Cruise plays a former military cop investigating a sniper case in 'Jack Reacher.' (KAREN BALLARD/Photo provided by Paramount Picture)/

Written By Kerry Lengel | Arizona Republic

Jack Reacher, the latest action vehicle for the not-quite-ageless Tom Cruise, opens with a gripping sequence depicting a mass shooting.

Photographed as a series of claustrophobic close-ups — of gloves, a rifle scope, a quarter slipped fatefully into a parking meter — it follows step-by-step as an expert gunman sets up across the waterfront from Pittsburgh’s baseball stadium and methodically guns down five seemingly random pedestrians.

The film’s Dec. 15 gala premiere was postponed after the unthinkable murders of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., the day before. But the setup almost certainly is inspired by the 2002 Beltway-sniper attacks, a serial shooting in the Washington, D.C., area that has receded far enough in memory to be commandeered for mass entertainment.

The tension between actual horrors and the Hollywood variety make for a curious viewing experience in Jack Reacher, which lurches from gritty realism to over-the-top comic-book heroics. Based on the 2005 novel One Shot by British writer Lee Child, it’s intended to expand a popular fiction franchise into film, but the workmanlike direction of Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun), although sporadically entertaining, may doom this flick to one-off status.

Cruise, who tapped McQuarrie as a script doctor for Mission: Impossible
— Ghost Protocol, is treading water (and looking slightly eroded) in the title role, a former military investigator who spent most of his life overseas and now exists off the grid, wandering from town to town in the country he served but never really knew. He heads to Pittsburgh to help bury the suspect in the sniper attacks, a veteran who got away with a similar crime in Iraq. But when a crusading defense lawyer (Rosamund Pike) hires him to investigate further, he uncovers an intricate frame job that sets up a climactic showdown with an international crime ring.

Reacher’s outsider experience gives him a cold-eyed perspective that aids in his investigation. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he also has an eidetic memory, expert training in martial arts and military weaponry and a stunt driver’s skills behind the wheel. He also gets a little help from a crusty NRA-type played by Robert Duvall, who, like Cruise, doesn’t seem to be working too hard.

Far more interesting is the appearance of legendary film director Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss, Grizzly Man) as the villain, a creepy Russian known only as the Zec (“prisoner”). In his only expansive scene, he explains to an ineffective flunky how he chewed off his own fingers to survive frostbite, then invites the hapless henchman to prove his determination to survive in similar fashion.

Cruise, too, gets in his share of entertaining moments, including a face-off with five local toughs (Reacher explains precisely why he’ll have to fight only three of them) and the clever ending to the obligatory car chase (the best scene in the movie — spoiled, of course, by the trailer).

Such highlights, though, are outweighed by numerous detours into the ridiculous, including a bit of bloody slapstick that sees Reacher bashing one bad guy’s skull with that of another, as well as a climax in which the supposedly logical hero tosses away his weapon to go mano-a-mano with a beefcake baddie at least 6 inches taller than he.

Fans of the novels will recognize the irony in this scene, as the literary hero actually is 6 foot 5 inches tall, as opposed to the 5-foot-7-inch Cruise. In the movie version at least, efforts to render the hero larger than life result in a story that is less than convincing.