For the second consecutive December, a dubious-sounding action picture starring Tom Cruise has turned out to be absolutely awesome. Last year there was Brad Bird’s astoundingly great “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” and now we have “Jack Reacher,” an old-fashioned, supremely entertaining action movie that shows Cruise, who turned 50 this year, has still got it.
The film, written and directed by “The Usual Suspects” screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, is an adaptation of Lee Child’s popular series of novels, and the casting of Cruise in the part of the notoriously tall Reacher raised some eyebrows among fans of the books. I haven’t read any of them, but I can tell you Cruise is never not believable in the role.
The plot, in light of recent events, may discomfort some viewers: A sniper using a huge assault rifle kills several people, seemingly at random, outside the Pittsburgh Pirates’ ballpark (what is it with horrific violence, in movies this year, in or near sports stadiums in Pittsburgh?) An Army veteran is arrested and accused of the crime, to be prosecuted by the hard-ass DA (Richard Jenkins) but defended by his daughter (Rosamund Pike.)
Asked to confess, the defendant instead asks for Jack Reacher (Cruise)- a notorious Army investigator-turned-drifter. Reacher finds himself battling a multifaceted coterie of bad guys and always getting the better of every physical confrontation, despite being 50 years old and noticeably shorter than all the people he’s fighting.
Much like last year’s “Mission: Impossible,” in which Brad Bird directed a live-action film for the first time and absolutely knocked it out of the park, McQuarrie, directing his first film in 12 years, handles the material deftly. He photographs the hell out of Pittsburgh and stages action and fight sequences in a coherent manner, especially an amazing chase scene about halfway through the film.
The cast is also strong across the board, with a major film making good use of Rosamund Pike for the first time in years. Robert Duvall has a fun part as an old Marine who helps Cruise. And, in a casting masterstroke, the chief baddie is played by German director Werner Herzog, bringing the same creepy intensity of his “Grizzly Man” monologues to a fiction role, as an older businessman/crime boss who chewed his own fingers off to survive in a Siberian prison.
Sure, “Jack Reacher” eventually runs out of steam- this is one of those movies that sets up an intricate plot in its first two thirds, before chucking it all in favor of a third-act shootout. But this is some of the best action filmmaking I’ve seen this year, and one of the most enjoyable movies overall.