Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is certainly a Tom Cruise film, insofar as Tom Cruise appears in the movie as the title character, whose main functions appear to be 1) reminding some people that he's not a major in the Army anymore, and 2) beating other people up. He is onscreen for a simple reason: Be Tom Cruise, and thus get people to buy tickets.
That makes sense, because Tom Cruise is really good at being in action films. He’s made a bunch, and a number of them are quite good: Top Gun, Edge of Tomorrow, Minority Report, and, of course, all five of the Mission: Impossible movies, with a sixth on the way.
Dozens of action movies have been made since the 1980s and ’90s, most of them deeply formulaic; but Cruise is charming and charismatic, and his presence is often enough to elevate a film beyond the boilerplate. His famous smile and boyish charisma (coupled with the ability to convincingly kick butt onscreen) usually builds complexity into characters who are more or less action figures.
Thanks mostly to Cruise’s involvement, the first Jack Reacher film, which came out in 2012, was serviceable — a 1970s throwback, enjoyable enough if action’s your thing. But even Cruise can’t save Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. This time, the film belongs to Cobie Smulders, who gets to do all the fun stuff as Major Susan Turner, and have a personality besides.
You’ve seen this movie before
Never Go Back opens with Reacher, the ostensible hero, phoning in tips on crooked military officers to Turner, who then dispatches the military police to take care of it. Reacher and Turner flirt, a bit perfunctorily, and eventually Reacher decides to go visit her.
(Important note: This movie is very determined that you not forget Reacher's name is Reacher. Someone says his name about once a minute, and it's weird every time, because it just sounds like they're trying to say Richard but with a lousy French accent.)
When he arrives at the base, Reacher discovers that Turner has been arrested and court-martialed as a spy. That seems wrong to him, so he pays her military lawyer a visit. The lawyer, in the course of blocking him from seeing Turner, suggests that reason Turner refuses to grant Reacher visitation might be some documents she unearthed from a woman Reacher doesn't remember, suing the Army for child support for a daughter he abandoned 15 years earlier.
That night, the lawyer turns up dead. Reacher is fingered for the crime, naturally. Due to a clause in some paperwork he signed when he left the Army, he's called back to duty (hence the extremely literalist warning of the subtitle) to be arrested immediately by military police.
But Reacher and Turner break out of the military prison — because otherwise this wouldn't be much of an action movie — to track down the girl who might be his daughter. The threesome take off. From there the plot of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is fairly typical: contractors working for the government, weapons, Afghanistan, etc.; you've seen this movie before.
Action movies are formulaic, but that doesn’t have to be a flaw
Don't get me wrong: That's not really a bad thing, or at least not enough to sink an action movie altogether. As with rom-coms or dystopian movies, viewers generally don’t come to an action film looking for gorgeous cinematography and a gripping, innovative drama exploring the human condition. (Though, as was the case with Mad Max: Fury Road, they might end up getting all that and more.) Action films are cathartic moneymakers that usually forgo originality in service of explosions and skillful hand-to-hand combat—and that’s fine. Sometimes you just want to see stuff blow up.
Tom Cruise is a spectacularly entertaining actor with a graceful fighting stance and a winning smile, and the other action franchise he leads, Mission: Impossible, is exactly what an action movie ought to be: full of insane, cathartic stunts (recall the last film, Rogue Nation, where he hung from an airplane as it took off and also pencil-dived into a vortex), structured around a silly plot, with a subtle self-awareness of its own over-the-top ridiculousness.
That last characteristic speaks to the most important element of classic action films, not to mention the Mission: Impossible franchise: They don’t take themselves too seriously, letting viewers in on the fun.
But Jack Reacher: Never Go Back can barely summon the will to live, let alone be entertaining. Tom Cruise sleepwalks through the film, his signature smile replaced with an ever-present scowl. And unlike, say, Matt Damon's Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher doesn’t do enough to justify its titular character being, as the guy several seats down from me loudly proclaimed, "kind of an asshole."
Reacher has no personality. He has no interests. He has no one-liners that land. He is, frankly, just a handsome, dull guy who happens to be adept at knocking people out. The Cruise factor theoretically could have saved Jack Reacher: Never Go Back from itself, but that’s not what happened.
Jack Reacher’s most interesting characters are its women
Filmmakers — to their credit — are finally catching on to the idea that women also watch action movies and like to see themselves represented among those beating up the bad guys. Smulders, who is scrappy and strong, performs stunts with aplomb — skills likely honed playing S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill — and is well cast as Turner, who can not only crack arms with the best of them but is also principled and committed to the soldiers under her command. Mercifully, the screenplay doesn't paint her as damaged or vulnerable-but-also-has-combat-skills, Hollywood's favorite shorthands to signal "strong female lead."
There's also Samantha, played by a confident Danika Yarosh. Her performance is enjoyable, and her chemistry with Smulders, when we glimpse it, has the wit and ease you’d hope to see between the adult leads in an action movie — chemistry we don’t get between Smulders and Cruise, to the movie’s detriment.
But Yarosh’s character [here be spoilers] presents the film's strangest plot contrivance, and its most gaping hole. Samantha's mother, who submitted the paperwork to sue for support, has a few priors, including a prostitution charge. Reacher never protests that he hasn't visited a prostitute, so maybe he has? We spend the whole movie wondering if he just, like, blacked out or went into a fugue state at some point 15 years ago.
But later, Samantha tells Reacher that she actually made her mom file the paperwork, and so she knows he's not her dad. There's also the intimation, twice, that Samantha’s ability to dodge predators on the run might be genetic. Then it turns out that Reacher isn't her father after all.
But then why, and how, did she file the paperwork with his name on it? Especially since he was presumably a civilian by the time the paperwork was filed? The movie just merrily speeds us past this — hoping, I guess, that we won't notice.
[end of spoilers]
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is arguably attempting to recapture the glory days of ’80s and ’90s action films, which were usually completely illogical but loads of fun. Quite a few of the classic elements are there: Tom Cruise, for instance, and a foster kid, and a final set piece that takes place in the middle of a holiday. (The ’90s favored Christmas — think of Die Hard or Lethal Weapon — but this one goes for a Halloween parade in New Orleans.)
But it’s not enough. By the end of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, it's clear that you could have just lifted Reacher out of the movie bearing his name, conjured a way to team up Turner and Samantha, and had a much more fun movie. (Throw in Tom Cruise as a villain! He'd be an amazing villain.)
Of course, then it wouldn't be a Jack Reacher film. It would just be a straight-ahead action film with two female leads. And would that be so bad? If nothing else, it would be a lot better than Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.