action film Jack Reacher Never Go Back Monday, October 24, 2016 Rob Samuelson
Tom Cruise has reigned supreme as Hollywood’s handsomest and most charismatic stunt man for decades, at least since the first Mission: Impossible film in 1996 -- and probably before that. Even at the age of 53, as he was in 2015’s fifth installment of the M:I series, Rogue Nation, Cruise dangled from the side of a cargo plane with only a few cables serving to tether him to the airborne death trap, among several other athletic feats. His calling card is putting his body through the ringer, to say, “No, thanks,” to modern CGI fakery in order to achieve a “this is (mostly) real” effect.
The saddest and most frustrating part of Cruise’s latest starring vehicle, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, is director Edward Zwick’s (Pawn Sacrifice, Love & Other Drugs) refusal to use his best tool: Cruise’s athleticism. Make no mistake, the famously slight Cruise put in long hours at the gym to bulk up for his reprisal of the Reacher role (after his first go-round with the character in 2012’s far superior Jack Reacher, about a former military man who becomes a freelance espionage agent/do-gooder). Cruise looks more like a bruiser, the type of guy who you believe could punch out an assassin through an unmarked sedan’s closed driver-side window or toss a few heavies around a darkened warehouse like they were his playthings.
But mostly, Never Go Back squanders Cruise’s abilities with endless shots following Reacher and series newcomer Maj. Turner (Cobie Smulders of The Avengers and CBS’s How I Met Your Mother) sprinting through the streets of Washington DC and New Orleans. Zwick keeps the camera at a ho-hum medium distance, never pulling back to show how fast Cruises’s and Smulders’s feet are pounding the pavement. When the occasional fight sequence occurs, Zwick relies on cinematographer Oliver Wood’s experience with the original Bourne trilogy, although to a diminished effect than in those genre-reshaping movies. The camera, intended to be in the middle of the action, gets too close, removing any sense of coherence to the image. Blurry, human-shaped figures bouncing against each other in half-second snippets (editor Billy Weber seems to lack patience for any shot lasting longer than the time it takes for an average person to blink) does not make for thrilling cinema. There is a lack of imagination regarding how to use Cruise’s malleable ragdoll body. Instead of pulling back to showcase how the middle-aged Cruise can move, Zwick and Wood are content to bathe the cheap sets in bluish light, making every fight sequence look like it has been lifted from a bad episode of Criminal Minds.
More damning, perhaps, is the movie’s script by Zwick, Richard Wenk, and Marshall Herskovitz, adapting Lee Child’s similarly-named novel, Never Go Back. The film is intended as a twisty potboiler, with government-contracted assassins attempting to cover up a drug- and gun-running ring in Afghanistan. Smulders’s Turner, who has become something of a flirty go-between for Reacher and his former military employers in the months before the film proper begins, is jailed for getting too close to discovering what’s really going on. Reacher, who yearns to take Turner on a dinner date because of their seconds-long phone conversations, vows to break her out of an Army prison before she is murdered behind bars. While he’s in DC, he discovers he is the subject of a paternity lawsuit for a child he had previously been aware of, Samantha (Heroes Reborn’s Danika Yarosh, heavy-handed and faux-tough in her “I grew up hard” affectations), who gets roped into the adventure. The script bends over backwards to force the primary characters, including the drab, buzzcutted villain played by Patrick Heusinger, to head toward New Orleans because Louisiana is a cheap state to shoot a movie.
The script trips over itself when it tries to make points about sexism. Reacher asks Turner to stay with Samantha overnight and Turner uncharacteristically (Smulders otherwise plays her as a bore, lacking humor or any other emotion) attacks him for lumping her into the “nurturing” role of fake mother when she is just as qualified to investigate the case they’re working as Reacher is. This attack is drawn as unreasonable because it had been preceded moments earlier by a scene of Turner and Samantha bonding over takeout. It is meant to make Reacher look unfairly persecuted for his no-nonsense decision-making skills while also acknowledging that sexism exists in the world -- and it’s all done poorly. This cringeworthy sequence is emblematic of a group of male writers, although they seem to mean well, stumbling in their attempts to show empathy toward women in a Hollywood era supercharged with calls for greater representation of multiple groups in front of and behind the camera.
Even brushing aside the subpar action filmmaking and cultural clumsiness, Never Go Back is notable in a bad way for Cruise’s performance. In his first appearance as Reacher, Cruise was so measured and serious that he came to the edge of dipping into camp. This time around, he dives into unintentional self-parody. He can barely get through his speeches about what he will do to the bad guys without yawning. The scenes of him figuring out the angles of the central conspiracy read like a silent comedian’s mugging for the camera -- when Reacher thinks hard about something, he really thinks. His would-be relationships with Turner and with his possible biological daughter are painful. He is not a difficult person to get along with the way he was in the first movie. He seemingly doesn’t understand what humans are or how they interact -- unsurprisingly, the rest of the movie follows suit and does not understand how to craft a compelling narrative.
Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger
Rating: One-and-a-half stars out of fiveAvailable in theaters now