Friday, January 4, 2013

In Theaters: JACK REACHER (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.  Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Joseph Sikora, Alexia Fast, Vladimir Sizov.  (PG-13, 131 mins)

Since winning an Oscar for scripting 1995's THE USUAL SUSPECTS, Christopher McQuarrie has maintained a pretty low profile:  he made his directing debut with 2000's THE WAY OF THE GUN, an underrated thriller best known for its hilariously profane opening sequence, and it was another eight years before he resurfaced to script VALKYRIE.  He created the short-lived 2010 NBC series PERSONS UNKNOWN and scripted the awful THE TOURIST and starting with JACK REACHER, his first directing effort in 12 years, McQuarrie is either having a burst of inspiration or he's out of money:  he wrote the upcoming JACK THE GIANT KILLER and this summer's X-MEN spinoff THE WOLVERINE, and is slated to write and direct MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 5.  JACK REACHER, an adaptation of One Shot, the ninth entry in Lee Child's popular series of Jack Reacher thrillers, is a refreshingly bullshit-free, crowd-pleasing popcorn action thriller configured as a perfect star vehicle for a seemingly miscast Tom Cruise, who's not quite the image of  6' 5" Reacher that Child's readers have gotten used to over the years.  But, Cruise is Cruise, and when he's on his game, he can sell you on pretty much anything.  There are times in JACK REACHER where it teeters on becoming a Cruise vanity project, but McQuarrie keeps it in check and the result is a fast-paced and very entertaining film.

Opening with a Pittsburgh sniper attack that's one of the most well-crafted set pieces of 2012, the film finds Iraq War vet and sharpshooter James Barr (Joseph Sikora) accused of killing five random people outside PNC Park from a parking garage across the river.  He says nothing while interrogated by homicide detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and the district attorney (Richard Jenkins), but writes "Get Jack Reacher" on a sheet of paper.  Barr ends up in a coma after being beaten by other inmates during a prison transport, and all Emerson can conclude about Reacher is that he's a much-honored US Army vet, war hero and ex-military cop who disappeared and lives off the grid except for having his monthly pension wired to wherever he happens to be.  As soon as Emerson says "You don't find Jack Reacher unless he wants to be found," in walks Reacher (Cruise).  Reacher knows Barr from their combat days and knows what he's capable of, but something doesn't add up.  Reacher ends up working as an investigator for Barr's attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who happens to be the district attorney's daughter ("Is that even legal?" Reacher asks), and in the course of his detective work, uncovers various clues and conspiracies that indicate that perhaps a complicated plot has been set in motion to frame Barr and make him a patsy.

The ultimate revelation (maybe the victims weren't random after all?) doesn't really hold up under much scrutiny, or the very least, it seems like entirely too much work for the true villains, though it does give us the inspired casting of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog as a one-eyed, nearly-fingerless ex-Siberian gulag inmate known as "The Zec."  JACK REACHER is a fun ride the entire way, with an intriguing mystery, lots of wiseass, crackling dialogue, and a very welcome respite from blurry, CGI-heavy shaky-cam action sequences and obvious, distracting greenscreen work.  There's a long car chase midway through that's hardly the greatest ever filmed but manages to stick out from the pack simply for how old-school it is in its execution.  Sure, there's minimal CGI in a few shots, but it's mostly the real deal with the actors in the cars, and what's immediately clear from watching it is how exceptional it seems because we so rarely see them done this way anymore.  The JACK REACHER car chase is good but would've been pretty by-the-numbers in the days of, say, BULLITT (1968), THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), THE SEVEN-UPS (1973) or TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985).  The fact that it seems so great in 2012 is a pretty sad commentary on what passes for car chases most of the time.  In fact, other than the cell phones and the Iraq War references, JACK REACHER could've almost been made 30 years ago with very similar results.

I haven't read any of Child's Reacher books, which is probably why I have no opinion of the miscasting of Cruise, but in the context of what's onscreen, he's fine.  He's got a solid supporting cast around him, most notably Herzog, who has the kind of voice that you can just listen to regardless of the subject (even better when he's talking about chewing off his own fingers), and the always-awesome Robert Duvall in full-on "old coot" mode as a crusty ex-Marine who helps Reacher out in the final act.  JACK REACHER isn't the kind of film that wins awards or gets the deluxe Criterion treatment down the road, but it never tries to present itself as anything more than what it is: fast, unpretentious and thoroughly enjoyable big-screen escapism.

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