Heaven help the poor souls who go into Jack Reacher expecting a fun-filled escapist action thriller. This movie is morose, cringe-inducingly violent, and populated by characters that are skin-crawlingly unpleasant. As an apparent indictment of the American legal system – and, presumably, of humanity itself – it shows nothing less than contempt and cynicism on the parts of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and Lee Child, author of One Shot, the novel on which this movie is based, as well as sixteen other novels that feature the Jack Reacher character. If the film is any indication, it’s no wonder he’s the star of so many stories; he has the intuition of Sherlock Holmes, the fighting skills of a superhero, the stealth of a ninja, and the curious indestructibility of a cockroach, so no matter what you throw at him, he will always walk away unscathed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was immortal, too.
The message of this film, so far as I can tell, is that due process is, quite paradoxically, an obstruction of justice. The title character, played with a darkly sardonic edge by Tom Cruise (who also serves as producer), is a nomadic ex-Army police officer who cannot be called, written to, or sent for, and yet keeps his eyes and ears open and will somehow always be there when needed. His inflexible view of the world, in which absolutely everything exists in either black or white, has stirred within him a warped sense of morality that gives him license to sidestep the law and do brutal things to people. This is bad enough as it is. It’s made worse by the fact that a key character, who represents the law, relies on him for information – and eventually, for rescuing. What better way to glorify an embittered vigilante than by turning him into an action hero?
The legal representative is Pittsburgh defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike). She has been assigned to the case of an unhinged army sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora), who was arrested for the shooting murders of five seemingly innocent people. If he is responsible for this crime, it wouldn’t be the first time he has done it; while serving his tour of duty in Kuwait, he shot several men to death, only to be released on very unlikely technicalities. He now lies in a hospital in a coma, having been severely beaten by inmates during a prison transfer. Before his beating, his only words to the police were written on a notepad: “Get Jack Reacher.” They can’t get him, for he’s an antisocial misanthrope who uses his years of military training to disappear without leaving trails. But somehow, he’s made aware of Barr’s situation, and so he arrives in Pittsburgh.
By all outward appearances, Barr is guilty. But the more Reacher thinks about it, the more unlikely it seems. He becomes Rodin’s investigator and begins the process of digging for clues. The deeper he goes, the more dangerous the case becomes. People are repeatedly sent to kill him, but Reacher, being so highly trained, can take on any opponent and come away with, at most, a bump on the head or a cut on his cheek. Other people die because Reacher has been in their lives. The audience is made aware early on of a Russian mobster known only as The Zec (renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog), who, during his years in a soul-crushing gulag, had to resort to chewing most of the fingers off of his hands. As a sign of loyalty, he forces all his hitmen to do the same thing to themselves. Those incapable of such a simple task are promptly shot dead.
Given everything I’ve told you thus far, how fun a movie do you think this is? The filmmakers attempt to lighten this depressing dreck with a car chase, which I suspect was included only so that advertising execs would have an excuse to prominently feature it in the ads and pass the film off as an action extravaganza. There’s also a dark sense of humor that lurks just under the surface, which is fatal to material that includes painfully authentic scenes of people being shot, punched, beaten, and having bone broken. There’s a scene in which Reacher is assaulted in a heroin den; it has already been established that he will leave the scene relatively unscathed, which gets really boring, but we’re not prepared for the fact that he will torture one of the gunmen by breaking the finger that’s still on the trigger. There’s then a brief comedic exchange in which Reacher takes the gunman’s car keys.
And speaking of guns, here is a movie that may someday be adopted by the NRA for use in recruitment videos. It’s not just the fact that far too many scenes show handguns and machineguns in action, although it certainly is a contributing factor; it’s also the fact that there’s a subplot involving Robert Duvall as the owner of a shooting range, who will himself become a key figure in Reacher’s investigative work and will take part in the climactic final confrontation – in which, by God, there’s a shootout! At a certain point, I entertained the notion of using a gun on myself. What a deplorable movie Jack Reacher is. It tells a story so dark, so venomous, and so convinced of humanity’s insincerity that it inspires nothing but bad feelings. And to think that this opened during the holiday season. Merry Christmas.