I’ll be honest: there were legitimately no movies in theaters I felt like watching. I was waiting for Moonlight to come to the arty theater near me (it arrived yesterday) and I am certain that The Handmaiden will be even tougher to track down. So I decided to try an experiment: I drove to the theater and bought a ticket to whatever movie was playing when I arrived.
Lo and behold, I was treated to Jack Reacher. I love a good action movie, and having thoroughly enjoyed me some Mission Impossible and Edge of Tomorrow, I find Cruise more than serviceable at what he does. So I was willing to give it a whirl.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back feels like some screenwriter was handed a sheet with a series of requirements: make it an action movie, and a thriller, but give it some emotional heft. And the screenwriter said: okay, I will meet exactly those requirements and nothing more. In other words: it feels like someone took three movies (thriller, action, emotional core), stripped them down to the basic building blocks throwing any nuance or invention aside, and cobbled those pieces together into a purely functionary movie. Each scene serves exactly its purpose, and nothing else. There is no build, no momentum, no story.
The film centers of Cruise’s Reacher (a retired Major who hates the army because of… bureaucracy, maybe?), who teams up with Cobie Smulders’ Major Susan Turner (whose main traits are that she is a Major and also a woman) and Reacher’s maybe daughter, Danika Yarosh’s Sam (who heroically preserves her angst while witnessing a series of cold blooded murders).
Let’s assume it is meant to be a thriller. The movie does technically involve a case Reacher and Turner must crack to clear their good name (because of course they’ve been framed for it). But again, there is simply not enough time devoted to this storyline to subvert anything or explore anything new. It doesn’t have time, so it devolves into already treaded ground. The villains of the movie are telegraphed so obviously that the thrill evaporates. It is the sort of thriller where the heroes instinctively know who the villains are, but no one else is able to catch on. The villains’ overall plot is so obvious that you’re supposed to have an “aha” moment at the end as you retroactively connect the dots, but again pressed for time the movie doesn’t involve any real red herrings.
Assuming it is an action movie reveals the same exact problems of stripped down plot and lack of actual momentum. Each chase works exactly the same way, with both the pursued and those in pursuit recycling tactics over and over again. The fights are always fist fights. There is no major set piece, no major finale or raising of stakes. The last fight of the movie is, if anything, the most boring and least extravagant, though it has a lot of competition for both those titles.
Taking it as an action movie in particular highlights the issues with the movie and it’s inclination towards functionality as opposed to actual story. Neither Jack Reacher nor Major Turner ever, ever carry a gun. At first I thought Reacher was some sort of Batman who refused to use guns or kill, but that’s not the case – in any given fight if he gets his hands on a gun, he uses it. So I thought maybe he just didn’t have one at the beginning of the film, and was waiting to acquire one. But that’s not the case either. Even when he leaves a fight with a gun, he has lost it by the next scene. Why would he do that? Because the next fight scene, as conceived, required him not having a gun. The scenes don’t feel like they follow each other, they feel like they are a series of fight scenes because action movies call for a series of fight scenes.
The “genre” that the movie dedicates the most time to is the “faux-family coming together movie”, which is something that has started to arise in movies recently to pretend they have a heart. In action movies a lot you have big personalities, and by making them come together you feel like the characters have grown. You feel like you should care. It’s basically a cheat to add emotional weight so you care when people fight.
Disregard how intensely boring the fights in the movie are, and assess this on its own, and the movie again suffers by skimming along the surface. For us to care about the family coming together, we’d need to care about the family.
Action heroes don’t need a lot if they are simply going to be icons of something. We don’t need to know anything about the Man with No Name, but we also aren’t asked to pretend to care about his interior life. We are asked to believe that Jack Reacher may have a daughter, and he may want to connect with her, and there may be guilt there.
But we know nothing about Reacher. We know that he can imagine things in black and white, which appears to be a skill (though what the hell he gains from this is never clarified). We know he is good at noticing when he is being followed, because he is followed five or six times throughout the movie and always notices. We know he hates being followed because he says: “I don’t like being followed” every time he punches his follower in the face. This is so much a character trait that at one point the big bad goads him out of hiding by saying he is following him, and Jack Reacher races into danger shouting: “I told you people I don’t like being followed!”
His hypothetical bond with his maybe daughter Sam is again doled out in single scenes of connection without any build towards a legitimate relationship. In her first appearance, Sam catches Jack Reacher following her and says: “I hate being followed.” This is an immediate emotional bond, because that is his only character trait. The scene functions to show that they are alike, and so that work is considered done. No need to advance. They are alike. In one of the final scenes of the movie Jack and Turner try to find Sam before the bad guys. “She’s in the street,” Jack Reacher declares. When asked how he knows this: “because that’s what I would do.” Aw, don’t you see? They’re so alike! That is emotional theme. Check.
The sole time we get any characterization of Jack is when Sam asks him, in the final exchange of the movie: “Don’t you get lonely?” and Jack answers: “Sometimes.” This scene might work as a climax of a character, but it isn’t. Like every other scene, it feels like just another thing to happen because the final scene of the movie has to be emotional. That’s how movies work.
I guess I could classify Jack Reacher: Never Go Back as a just fine movie. Because each scene is so focused on functioning well as a scene, it works out fine. When the characters fight, they fight. When they should be emotional, they are emotional. It isn’t bad. Nothing about it is “bad”. It’s just so disconnected that it’s hard to care when it’s over.
Jack Reacher: Never Goes Back three out of ten times.
The most hilarious scene where Jack ditches a gun that probably would have been useful later: Jack confronts two gunmen in a car who he thinks are trying to kill him. He takes one of their guns, and makes the other guy toss his gun into the backseat. At the end of the scene, Jack walks away and dissembles the gun he took before throwing it in a trashcan. He does this while still in plain view of the car filled with two guys who are trying to kill him. There is still a gun in that car. All the baddies have to do is reach into the back seat and shoot Jack in the back, and the movie would have been over.
The climax takes place during Halloween in New Orleans! I expected this to be the film’s exciting set piece, but it eschewed that by totally abandoning the parade and instead focusing on a rooftop that could have been any city, any day of the year.
The parade, in turn, so pointedly ignores the final confrontation that Jack Reacher at once point scales a series of occupied porches up to the fifth floor, coming within three feet of the people on the porches (clearly within their peripheral vision, at least) and the people don’t say “what are you doing?”. They don’t even look at him. It is shocking how pointedly they don’t look at Jack Reacher as he scales a building in their face.
The villain in the movie served in the Middle East, where some of the plot intrigue also took place. Hilariously, a vague Middle Eastern theme plays in every early scene he is in, or when they are discussing him.
What does the title mean? Who the hell knows! Never Go Back to the army? To the past? To the theater? Zing!