Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike
I have a volatile relationship with Netflix's recommendations. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Netflix seems to have no idea what the word "recommends" means, given that it sometimes recommends films to me that have no connection to anything that I've already watched and indicated liking, and/or films that it believes I would give a rating of 1 or 2 stars if I did watch it. For whatever reason, when it does this I usually can't resist watching whatever it comes up with; it's like a challenge that I can't bring myself to walk away from. So, when Netflix recommended Jack Reacher, a film which I recall reading scathing things about when it came out in theaters, I figured that it was, once again, screwing with me, though it did claim that the recommendation was based on my having liked Drive and Hanna. Those two films are vastly superior to this one in myriad ways, but I actually did not hate Jack Reacher. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it (though I am told that this is only possible because I never read the book). So congratulations Netflix, you've won this round in the game we're playing with rules I'll probably never quite understand.
Jack Reacher begins with a mass shooting and the quick arrest of the suspect, ex-military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora). When he's questioned by police detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins), he demands that they get hold of a man named Jack Reacher, and shortly thereafter Barr is beaten into a coma by other inmates so that any further information about Reacher and why Barr wants to see him is impossible to come by. Emerson can't find Reacher and neither can Barr's lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who is also the daughter of the District Attorney, but soon enough Reacher (Tom Cruise), having heard about the case on the news, shows up. While everyone assumes that he was a friend of Barr's who is going to bail him out of trouble, Reacher quickly disavows them of that notion, revealing to Helen that when he was still a Military Police Corps officer he investigated and arrested Barr for a mass shooting in Iraq which ultimately resulted in Barr being set free due to extenuating circumstances surrounding the men he had killed. Though Helen believes otherwise, Reacher is certain that Barr is guilty of this crime as well and his intention is to punish him, not to save him. It is only when he begins looking closely at the evidence that Reacher begins to conclude that Barr may be nothing more than a patsy in a bigger game and becomes determined to uncover it.
That Barr isn't guilty of this crime is obvious to the audience, as the film spends its tense first minutes watching another man (Jai Courtney) committing it. The only questions are why was this seemingly random act of violence committed, and how does it benefit the man behind the proverbial curtain, a Russian man (Werner Herzog) whose missing fingers are the reminders of the time he spent in a Soviet Gulag. Once Reacher arrives on the scene, men working at the behest of the Russian (without stopping to get his counsel) try to scare Reacher off, which naturally results in the investigator digging in his heels in order to get to the truth. When the Russians murder a woman and pin it on Reacher in the hopes of either sending him on the run or putting him behind bars and out of their way, he only becomes more determined not just to reveal the truth, but to put the hurt on each and every person who has put him to such great inconvenience. In a last ditch attempt to neutralize Reacher, the Russians kidnap Helen and attempt to bargain with her, only to be informed by Reacher that he's "not a hero" and means to "beat [them] to death and drink [their] blood from a boot." Of course, this being a Tom Cruise movie, Reacher is, in fact, a hero, just an incredibly grumpy one with a terrible attitude.
The opening scenes of Jack Reacher are a masterwork of tension as it watches the sniper setting himself up and slowly, methodically picking out his targets. The opening scene, like the killer at the center of it, is unhurried and by proceeding with this incredible sense of calm, director Christopher McQuarrie is able to make the scene all the more terrifying. By the time he opens fire, we're left to believe that this isn't just a madman driven to kill by the heat of passion, but a professional killing as many random people as he can for the sheer sake of killing. We learn latter that the killings are not as random as they at first appear, but that does nothing to alleviate the horrifying senselessness of opening sequence, and McQuarrie manages to maintain that feeling of unbalance well into the narrative. As the film progresses, McQuarrie is able to imbue it with an effective noirish sensibility which gives the film a somewhat "old school" feeling that fits nicely to the type of character that Reacher is supposed to be, a tough guy without ties who wanders around the world until trouble finds him and makes him stop for a while to sort it out. Jack Reacher is a film with a lot of atmosphere and McQuarrie uses it well, employing it as the distraction while he does the narrative sleight of hand necessary for a story like this, where all the answers ultimately have to lead back to the clues we were given right at the beginning of the film.
I admire the craft behind Jack Reacher, but, though I didn't read the book, I can understand why its fans would be less than thrilled about it and, in particular, about Cruise in the lead role. While I think Cruise equips himself fairly well in the role, there is a line in the film that makes me understand why he's all wrong for the part and leaves me to wonder why McQuarrie (who adapted the book in addition to directing) didn't find a way around it. It comes when Emerson asks the clerk at a seedy motel if anyone has checked in lately who might be able to kill someone with one punch and the clerk directs him to the room Reacher has rented under an alias, assuring Emerson that he'll understand once he sees him. Through the course of the film Reacher proves himself to be a tough character, but that's the thing: he has to prove it. No one would look at Tom Cruise and think, "Yeah, he could probably kill someone with one punch." I mean, the man's in shape but... come on. And while this is nothing more than a brief exchange, it manages to undo a lot of what the film has built up to that point and completely took me out of it for several minutes. Still, despite that hiccup, I enjoyed Jack Reacher and, for the most part, Cruise in it and though Pike is wasted in the obligatory "girl" role, the film somewhat makes up for that by casting Herzog as the villain and letting him turn in a performance as menacing as it is bizarre. Not bad for a Netflix recommendation.