Jack Reacher is a figure of almost zen-like calm—or he would be, if he ever stopped breaking people’s limbs so cavalierly. As played by Tom Cruise, the ex-military cop is somehow short and gigantic all at once, an oblong hulk who hitchhikes from town to town dispensing justice. The first entry in the Jack Reacher film series—based on a series of books by Lee Child—was a brutish delight, a grim potboiler that seemed conjured from an earlier era of Hollywood. But its new sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, is dispiritingly formulaic, retaining much of the first film’s swaggering masculinity, but none of its self-awareness.
It’s too bad, because the Jack Reacher series has given Cruise a perfect avatar for this late, strange, action-hero era in his career. Devoid of the boyish charm that propelled the actor to stardom in the ’80s and ’90s, Reacher is a vengeful alien walking among foolish mortals, a detached, but nonetheless oddly compelling ex-soldier who barks lines like, “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot.” Cruise is terrific in Never Go Back, seeming more comfortable than ever as a man who struggles to personally relate to anyone unless he’s trying to snap their neck, but the film doesn’t come close to matching his bizarre intensity.
Directed by Edward Zwick (who worked with Cruise on The Last Samurai and is slumming from his usual prestige-picture territory), Never Go Back is adapted from the 18th book in Child’s never-ending series, and this choice of source material has its flaws. The film assumes an easy familiarity with its character that many viewers may not have, as Reacher navigates the world of the U.S. Military Police, of which he is a former member, and uncovers a gun-running conspiracy.
In 2012, Jack Reacher was a moderate hit that stood out for its weird flourishes, like casting Werner Herzog as the chief villain. The movie’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, gave its action sequences a unique visual snap—its opening, shown entirely through the lens of a sniper rifle, is one of the most bravura pieces of Hollywood action filmmaking in the last decade. McQuarrie then re-united with Cruise for the fifth Mission Impossible entry, Rogue Nation, where the two played with more elaborate set-pieces. Zwick, as a replacement, lacks McQuarrie’s panache. The fights are mostly blurry and dark, and the final showdown, which takes place on the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, resorts to every possible cliché rather than using that chaotic environment to its advantage.
Reacher is introduced with the same hushed reverence as in the previous film. Threatened with arrest by a local sheriff after getting into a fight at a diner, Reacher intones that soon the sheriff will be the one in handcuffs, pointing to a near payphone. It immediately rings with the news: Reacher is right, and the sheriff is going to jail, suddenly exposed as a human trafficker. This is the kind of magician Reacher is; he’s like a grim version of the Fonz, down to his propensity for leather jackets. When he walks into a room, people say, “We’ve been waiting for you to arrive.” When he wants to threaten someone inside a car, he punches through the window with ease, sustaining only a grazed knuckle in the process.
The idea of Reacher is that he can behave as the law cannot, unbound by inconvenient restrictions like due process or one’s right to a jury trial. Reacher conjures his own justice from thin air, killing the bad guys, protecting the innocent, and then slinking to the next town with just a few dollars in his pocket. The plot of Never Go Back revolves around a fellow military cop named Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who has been framed for espionage. Reacher breaks her out, and the rest of the film is a mostly uninterrupted chase around Washington D.C. and New Orleans that pauses only to delve into a subplot about a 15-year-old girl (Danika Yarosh) who might be Reacher’s daughter.
There’s no real chemistry between Cruise and Smulders, but the film almost plays that to its advantage, spinning their relationship as one of mutual respect. Never Go Back mines most of its laughs from its protagonist’s strange social awkwardness; he’s no James Bond, as suave in a formal setting as he is deadly in combat. Cruise constantly sniffs and grimaces when interacting with people, and is at his calmest when committing base violence. It’s an unusual, involving performance, perhaps even better than his (excellent) work in the first Reacher, but it’s mostly wasted on a film committed to formula. It’s unsurprising that Zwick, who is far less interested in action, leans on the human story between Reacher and his maybe-daughter Samantha to propel the film, but it’s by far the movie’s weakest, most perfunctory element.
Jack Reacher is a series that Tom Cruise can grow old with. There’s nothing stopping the now 54-year-old actor from growing more grizzled and anti-social with every sequel, if he wants to make them. Even a phoned-in Reacher will play well on cable years from now: Never Go Back is certainly still watchable despite its terrible villain (an assassin called “The Hunter,” played by Patrick Heusinger) and a predictable plot. But there’s an ineffable weirdness at the core of the central character that a smart director (like Zwick) can explore and exploit. After this mediocre entry, Jack Reacher may never come back to theaters, but there’s life in this old dog yet.