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Will Tom Cruise ever be able to get out of the way of his own movies ever again? It’s no fault of the actor, a slave to discipline, character and completely true line readings. But starting with Anne Rice’s balking – eventually very publically retracted – at his casting as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, public outcry has preceded informed judgment of his work. An engagement to Katie Holmes, a cardio workout on Oprah’s couch, association with Scientology, a divorce from Katie Holmes – all of these personal assignations have come to define the career of Hollywood’s highest-earning actor.
Which would be one thing if the actor had less than enough talent to fill a thimble. But he’s proven time and again to be hard-working, emotionally dedicated and versatile. And yet the only thing people remember in Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher, based on Lee Child’s 2005 novel One Shot, part of the series starring the curiously taciturn army officer, is that the actor is too short to play the six foot five stoic. They’re barking up the wrong tree. McQuarrie’s action suspense flick isn’t perfect, but it’s not the star’s fault that the puzzle is shy of a few pieces.
Reacher pops in the beginning – literally. A sniper in a parking garage across from PNC Park, home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, kills six innocent people. Very quickly, army sniper James Mark Barr (Joseph Sikora) is arrested. Saying only “Get Jack Reacher,” an inmate attack leaves him incapacitated before he can declare any more about his crime. And right then does rogue wolf Reacher (Cruise) himself appear before Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and district attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins). Reacher lives life off the grid, but a connection to Barr has brought him to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania replaces Indiana in the novel) and teams him with Barr’s defense attorney, Helen Rodin (a wonderful Rosamund Pike, making the “girl” role more interesting than it is on the page), daughter of, of course, Alex.
McQuarrie gets a lot right. As shot by director of photography Caleb Deschanel, Reacher comes loaded with a sense of place. Many patient establishing shots and street sequences (including a marvelous nighttime chase scene, a testament to editor Kevin Stitt’s editorial skill) pay special attention to Pittsburgh as a character. And Cruise does such subtle work, carrying the film and creating a sturdy action character that I imagine his skill will get outshone by the erroneous outcry about his casting. So in the books, Child’s creation is apparently almost a foot taller than the actor who portrays his likeness onscreen. So what? It’s an adaptation. Film cannot always do what books do – it’s why they are two separate media genres. Due to variables like editorial choice, casting, and logistical feasibility, movies don’t always look the way authors or readers pictures the source material. Tough. The star proves again that he is a consummate film actor, not just celebrity here, in ways most current magazine cover studs wouldn’t even understand how to do, giving credence to Reacher’s moral code, particularly in a handful of scenes opposite a very good Alexia Fast as Sandy, a local girl who just can’t say no to trouble.
But there is a problem afoot, and as both adaptor and helmer, McQuarrie is to blame. Despite a carefully modulated tone of amused sincerity, and a few terrific early sequences, including a recreation of the last day in the victims’ lives, we never see the wheels turning in Reacher’s head. Cruise has no problem convincing us that this enigmatic man is every bit the problem-solver the story – and, presumably, intended ones for the future – needs him to be, but the film can’t get us to see what keeps these motors oiled, how he is able to see things in a way no one else can and arrive at unorthodox solutions. It’s a shame that McQuarrie only succeeds in making Reacher an effective thriller when it is in motion. As it inches toward its fairly predictable climax in which villains explain away their motives and give the good guys ample time to get away and prepare their defenses, the film unexpectedly idles. Cruise’s predilection for cars is no secret – but the star shouldn’t have to do all the driving here.