Having been cast out of the profitable summer season after 2010’s costly flop Knight and Day, Tom Cruise has since been busy imposing himself upon the Boxing Day slot with films that bear the credit “Tom Cruise in a Tom Cruise production”. Last year’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol just passed muster, but 26/12/12 brings us the trickier proposition of Jack Reacher, based on the Lee Child bestseller One Shot. Cruise may very well have presented the project to Paramount as their opportunity to match Fox’s inexplicably successful Taken franchise – and you can’t help but think that series’ towering lynchpin Liam Neeson would be more immediately convincing as Child’s six-foot-five ex-Special Forces op than the still-boyish, smirking, unavoidably tiny Cruiser.
The change of title necessitates a full twenty minutes of exposition, in response to the early question “who is Jack Reacher?” Some familiar answers come in. He’s a maverick, by all accounts, who doesn’t trust authority and simply refuses to play by the rules; he’s apparently built like the proverbial outhouse, and harder than Sean Bean on steroids wielding a titanium mace. Then on walks Top Gun, sniffing around a sniper attack in downtown Pittsburgh that has left five unrelated people dead, and rather undermining the build-up.
Christopher McQuarrie, making a comeback of sorts sixteen years on from writing The Usual Suspects and twelve years after directing The Way of the Gun, makes something queasily compelling out of the initial attack, viewed through the sniper’s crosshairs, before cutting around the death of a mother who dies shielding her child, either to secure the 12A rating or appease viewer sensibilities in the wake of Sandy Hook. Still, this is very much a Tom Cruise production, and the level of control being exercised is often unintentionally hilarious.
Reacher’s introduction involves a lady emerging from his rumpled bedsheets and redressing herself – that’s right, folks: he’s a lover and a fighter – while every other scene features a bevy of young women batting their eyelashes at him, from casual bar pick-ups to Rosamund Pike, reduced to wide-eyed breathiness as the D.A.’s daughter-turned-damsel-in-distress. One of her encounters with Cruise showcases the most gratuitous display of male toplessness outside of a Twilight movie – though this show of star muscle gets objectionable whenever it asks the girls to stand round cooing at Reacher beating another of his foes to a pulp.
Just when you think the movie can’t get any campier, out of the shadows steps a one-eyed Werner Herzog as chief villain The Zec, who apparently chewed off three of his own fingers in a Siberian prison camp to avoid losing them to gangrene. A weirdly passive antagonist, sitting around in the background while his minions get on with the real dirty work, Herzog has no business being here save to make the cinephiles slumming it in the back rows of the Odeon chuckle; still, maybe the paycheque will help fund his next expedition, and future Jack Reacher sequels will see Cruise facing off against Bela Tarr or Michael Haneke.
Like so much about the Cruise career, everything is played insistently straight, yet the star’s steely determination to reassert his own stardom, his own overpowering masculinity, leaves us with an invulnerable hero who’s just impossible to root for, and whose relentless, sub-Arnie wisecracks get very tiresome very quickly. It doesn’t help that all the eye-gouging, woman-beating and incidental racism makes it an uncomfortable 12A, at best – even before you factor in the gun fetish that leaves the film looking dodgy indeed in the light of recent events. Maybe the Boxing Day crowd will indulge Tom one more time – but I’d seen enough of Jack Reacher long before the utterly generic final shootout, which isn’t a terribly good sign for a putative franchise-builder. In Cruise’s iron fist, Child’s filling pulp has been reduced only further: to over-extended nonsense.
Jack Reacher is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.