In "Jack Reacher," the new thriller starring Tom Cruise, the crime that draws the film's reclusive ex-Army investigator out of the shadows — a sniper gunning down people on a city street — couldn't have been a worse one to land in theaters just days after the horror of the Connecticut elementary school massacre (the studio delayed the film's release in the area).
If a movie is compelling and artistic in its own right, it can survive the impact of these sorts of terrible real-life events, as "Dark Knight Rises" was forced to do over the summer after a gunman opened fire in a Colorado theater. But so thrill-less, so chill-less is "Jack Reacher" that it is unlikely to spark interest, much less controversy.
It no doubt seemed a smart choice to put this adaptation of the novel "One Shot," which falls about midway through Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, into the hands of filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie. His first script featured the clever criminal mind game of 1995's "The Usual Suspects." Directed by Bryan Singer, it essentially became Hollywood's version of a bull's-eye and other McQuarrie action/crime scripts followed.
But his directing debut with 2000's "The Way of the Gun" was a disappointment — more style than substance. "Reacher" marks McQuarrie's second time in the director's chair and I fear it too will go the way of the "Gun."
The challenge for star and filmmaker is Reacher himself. As constructed by Child, Reacher is so damaged by his military days that no one is allowed to get emotionally close. Even the running monologue in his head is clipped, sarcastic, forever reassessing the odds. The exterior man is, if possible, even more brisk, brash and, when necessary brutal, a giant of a man with the kind of training in fire power and hand-to-hand that make him impossible to stop.
It's a great character, but one that doesn't suit Cruise. In Reacher's case size matters — it's integral to the way he wins the day. Tightly wound, Cruise can do; physically overpowering is a stretch. But it's Reacher's interior life that is the real issue. He communicates a world of hurt — absorbed and dispensed — in his cool, calculating looks. The actor can do cool and calculating, it's the meaning behind it that never flickers to life. "Jack Reacher" plays like Cruise on cruise control.
As the film gets underway, a sniper is picking off people strolling along the Pittsburgh downtown river walk on a sunny day. By the time the six-rounds of his high-powered rifle are expended, five people are lying dead on the esplanade. It seems random.
Thousands of miles away Reacher is enjoying the beach, beverages and a beauty, when reports of the killings surface. Something sounds familiar to Reacher about the crime and when he hears the name of the man arrested, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), he is on the road to the Rust Belt. Reacher and Barr have met before and not as friends. Which makes it all more confusing when Barr scrawls the words "Get Jack Reacher" during the police interrogation and nothing more.
Or it would have been had the filmmakers not made the bizarre choice to veer from the book and reveal one major, major clue at the very beginning of the film. Even with director of photography Caleb Deschanel's skill at both up-close-and-personal and out-of-control action, the tension in "Reacher" keeps escaping like a tire with a slow leak. Anyone who has read Child's page-turning fiction will moan.
Rosamund Pike plays Helen Rodin, the local attorney who brooks her firm's resistance to take on the sniper case. She's got daddy issues that quickly factor in since the elder Rodin (Richard Jenkins) is the D.A. Heading the police investigation is Emerson (David Oyelowo), though with a pile of incriminating evidence there's little to do.
It will take Reacher a few days of diving into the underbelly of Pittsburgh's industrial scene to uncover what really happened on that sunny day. He is soon on the trail of a major bad guy called the Zec, with filmmaker and occasional actor Werner Herzog the only one in the film who actually succeeds in making your skin crawl. Robert Duvall turns up in a nice cameo as a gun range owner thankfully without a Texas accent.
The brightest spot is Pike, who proves she's even more of an actress than I realized from her fine turns in "An Education" and "Made in Dagenham," by getting all hot and bothered every time she's around Reacher. The guy's supposed to radiate a kind of animal magnetism — I just don't think "cold fish" was what they had in mind.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, language and some drug material
Running time: 2 hours,
Playing: In general release