Saturday, October 22, 2016


(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Robert Knepper, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Madalyn Horcher, Robert Catrini, Jessica Stroup, Austin Hebert. (PG-13, 118 mins)

Released at Christmas 2012, JACK REACHER was the first big-screen adaptation of the popular character from a series of books by Lee Child. Much was made of Tom Cruise not exactly being the 6' 5" wall depicted in the novels, but the movie was a smart and action-packed throwback with a refreshing 1970s approach that involved doing as much practical stunt work as possible, right down to an old-school car chase from the FRENCH CONNECTION school. It also performed under expectations at the American box office, and though it made $80 million against a $60 million budget, analysts still considered it somewhat of a flop compared to Cruise's track record, with the likes of his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series. JACK REACHER proved to be a blockbuster hit overseas, particularly in Asia, which is probably the reason we're getting a sequel that American audiences really weren't demanding. Budgeted at just under $100 million for some reason, with a good chunk of the financing coming from China-based Huahua Film & Media Culture and the Shanghai Film Company, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK is based on the 2013 novel Never Go Back, the 18th in the Jack Reacher series. It certainly doesn't look like something that cost nearly $100 million, and unlike most US/China co-productions, an incongruous and prominently-billed Asian pop star isn't on hand to play a character briefly and cumbersomely shoehorned into the story, though the version released in Asia is probably different.

Taking place a few years after the first film, NEVER GO BACK finds the loner Reacher doing freelance work for the military police and hitching rides from town to town, going where the road takes him like an ass-kicking David Banner sans the Hulk-outs. An ex-Army Major, Reacher has a flirtatious phone relationship with D.C.-based Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who's in his old office. He decides to pay her a visit when he makes his way to D.C., only to find she's been arrested and facing a court-martial for espionage. Of course, Reacher decides to meddle in the investigation and doesn't buy that Turner set up two soldiers under her command to be killed in Afghanistan when they uncovered an illegal weapons trade supposedly being run by Turner. Everyone in the Army seems eager to pin this crime on Turner and sweep her under the rug, starting with her replacement, the scheming Col. Morgan (Holt McCallany). The Army also lets Reacher know that he's got a paternity suit against him, even though he insists he has no children. When Turner's lawyer (Robert Catrini) is murdered, Reacher is arrested and thrown in an Army compound, where he of course stages a daring and improbable escape with Turner, the two going on the run and picking up Samantha (Danika Yarosh), the 15-year-old who may or may not be Reacher's daughter and is being targeted by the same killer-for-hire contractors out to silence them.

Of course Turner is innocent, the real culprits being a rogue contracting outfit called Parasource, who dispatch a ruthless assassin known simply as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger) to make them all disappear. Parasource's contractors are hijacking US military weapons and selling them on the black market in the Middle East, a lucrative scheme overseen by the retired and constantly sneering General Harkness (Robert Knepper), whose villainy is obvious the moment you see that Robert Knepper is playing a sneering character named "General Harkness." Knepper, who seems to be getting all of the roles that once went to former actor James Woods before he decided to spend his emeritus years in daily Twitter meltdowns, can play this kind of part in his sleep and doesn't really get much to do other than behave like a smug prick as Harkness (of course, he's seen glowering at his desk, ominously reminding a group of paramilitary goons "No witnesses"). One thing working against NEVER GO BACK is that none of its villains--Harkness, Heusinger's The Hunter, or McCallany's Morgan--are as effective as the inspired casting of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog as "The Zec" in the first film. This film cost nearly $40 million more than its predecessor and doesn't really go bigger in any way. There's no big names in this other than Cruise. Jobbing journeymen like Knepper and McCallany (the J.T. Walsh of his generation) are exemplary character actors but they don't command huge salaries. And Smulders has HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and some Marvel movies to her credit, but she isn't a big-screen headliner making Jennifer Lawrence money, so where did the budget go? Sure, the explosions look a bit more convincing than the CGI norms of today, but there even a big car chase doesn't match the impressive one in the first film.

Director/co-writer Edward Zwick, a veteran journeyman whose career has been all over the place (he created THIRTYSOMETHING and directed films as varied as SPECIAL BULLETIN, GLORY, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, THE SIEGE, Cruise's THE LAST SAMURAI, and the DiCaprio bling-bang of BLOOD DIAMOND), gets the job done but doesn't bring the snappy wit that USUAL SUSPECTS writer Christopher McQuarrie brought to the first REACHER (McQuarrie is one of the committee of producers on NEVER GO BACK). Cruise is pretty much the whole show here and much of the film is in service to his ego, whether it's his name mentioned no less than three times in the opening credits or the now-obligatory scenes of the still-youthful-looking 54-year-old running. Smulders is a solid foil who handles herself well in the many action scenes, but NEVER GO BACK stumbles a bit with Yarosh's Samantha. The actress herself is fine but her character's main function--aside from being absolutely unable to even--is to do stupid shit that alerts The Hunter or Harkness to their whereabouts, whether it's sending a text on a phone she knows she shouldn't have, or using a stolen credit card to order room service while Reacher and Turner are out trying to clear their names. Samantha is also the source of the script's biggest plot hole, one that's glossed over by Zwick and co-writers Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk in the hopes that the audience will just forget about it. JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK isn't trying to be an original piece of work--otherwise, it wouldn't include a brawl at a warehouse that looks like an abandoned set from a Nine Inch Nails video, and the final showdown between Reacher, Turner, and Harkness' Parasource assholes wouldn't take place at a wharf--but despite its many familiarities and predictable developments, it's always fun to see badass characters just plowing their way through bad guys (Reacher punching a guy in the face through a rolled-up driver's side window is a highlight), and Cruise and Smulders are a likable team. Bonus challenge for when this hits Netflix streaming: drink every time someone says "Reacher" and see if you make it to the halfway point before passing out.

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