There's been a bit of back to the future in Hollywood lately, especially among the cops-and-killers genre thrillers. Not long ago Alex Cross attempted to re-boot James Patterson's bestselling detective series, which Morgan Freeman embodied in the 1990s films Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. Only this time, Alex Cross is played by Tyler Perry (face slap!). It was a dreadfully out-of-date throwback to the 1990s and played like a bad John Grisham film.
This first film based on Lee Child's almost superhuman super-sleuth Jack Reacher does its best to bring the police procedural into the 2010s, with some smart writing and directing from Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects). But there's an overriding sense that without the commanding central performance by Tom Cruise (Reacher), this first instalment might have stalled before the franchise even began.
Without the 50-year-old Cruise as the Iraq war vet-turned ace investigator, McQuarrie's adaptation of One Shot (the ninth of 17 Reacher novels) might have sunk to pulpy Alex Cross levels. With Cruise, however, it lifts from an otherwise mundane murder mystery to gutsy, gripping levels of popcorn entertainment.
And that's saying something; in the books, Child's Reacher is a strapping 196cm with blonde hair and ice-blue eyes. Cruise is 170cm with almost jet-black hair. Yet Cruise makes the character his own.
The film starts with a shooter setting up a rifle in rooftop car park and killing five seemingly random people. A former US military sniper is quickly hauled in for the multiple homicides. He requests one thing: Jack Reacher, a highly decorated but mysterious military investigator who now lives off the grid. He is part Sherlock Holmes, part Jason Bourne and part Dirty Harry.
Comely lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) is assigned to the sniper's seemingly indefensible case but doesn't need to track Reacher down. He's already on the case and suspects the sniper didn't do it.
One could go on about the series of red herrings and shady characters that soon pop up, from Reacher suspecting the sniper of a previous crime to Rodin's District Attorney father (Richard Jenkins) who wants a quick result. But to be honest, all eyes are on Cruise's electric, tightly controlled central performance, which is reminiscent of his roles in Top Gun, Mission Impossible and A Few Good Men.
In a bar-room sequence, he's set upon by five hired goons. He tells them exactly how he'll take each one down and gives them a chance to back out. Then he takes them down - with bone-crunching efficiency - the exact way he described. It's a scene that lets Cruise do what he does best; unleash a cool can of mixed martial arts whoop-ass.
In another sequence, he chases baddies in a roaring red muscle car while the cops are chasing him.
But despite these and other energetic scenes, Jack Reacher is a fairly standard detective murder-mystery with all the cliched trimmings. Pike seems to freeze in Cruise's presence like a deer in headlights (Jodi Foster or Laura Linney would be more his match).
Engaging, economical and popcorn- munching fun, Jack Reacher is as predictable as any Tom Cruise box-office hit. It's as neat as one of his kidney punches but not quite the knockout of one of his round-house kicks.
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