Can Tom Cruise prove that he’s a credible action star in his early fifties?
He certainly found some success this decade when he reprised his role as Ethan Hunt for the last two Mission: Impossible films. In 2012, he starred in and produced the action film, Jack Reacher, which is based on the novel by Lee Child. Cruise played the titular character, who was a homicide investigator who hunts down a man who murdered five people in a plot containing numerous twists. The movie was fine enough, featuring some great work by director Christopher McQuarrie, but was brought down by the miscasting of Tom Cruise (we’ll get into more detail on that later). Nevertheless, it did become enough of a box office success to warrant a sequel, and thus, we have Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.
Set four years after the first film, Reacher travels to Washington D.C. to meet an old friend from his days in the military, Maj. Susan Turner (played by Cobie Smulders). Upon arriving, he discovers that she has been arrested under the charge of espionage. On top of that, Reacher himself has been framed for the murder of a man connected to this. After breaking out of federal prison, Reacher and Turner must uncover the conspiracy surrounding their case, while being fugitives of the law. Along the way, a teenaged girl named Sam, who may or may not be Reacher’s biological child, is thrown in to the mix.
The inherent problem with the Jack Reacher films is that Tom Cruise is sorely miscast as the title role. According to the script, Reacher is a mysterious individual, with a particular set of skills (this is Tom Cruise, mind you, not Liam Neeson), an intense way of talking to his opponents, and a dry, yet sarcastic sense of humor to boot. Cruise’s physique and body language do not suggest any of these skills, which would not be a problem if he had Reacher’s charisma. Cruise plays the role too seriously, basically rendering his character as two-dimensional, and his youthful voice does not evoke fear. So when he threatens his enemies, it’s baffling that they actually look terrified, and this negatively affects the film. The role of Reacher is the kind that would be more suited for an actor like Bruce Willis, who has more charisma and backbone. Bare in mind that Cruise produced both films, so he must really believe in the material.
Edward Zwick replaces McQuarrie as director this time around. Zwick has made some of the grandest films in cinematic history, including Glory, Blood Diamond, and Pawn Sacrifice. He and Cruise previously worked together on 2003’s phenomenal The Last Samurai, and for that film, were a match made in heaven. That is not the case here. While Zwick’s direction here is competent enough, it lacks the sleekness that McQuarrie showed in the first film. For example, in Jack Reacher there is an entertaining fight scene between Reacher and two thugs who cannot cooperate in a fight. Spontaneous moments like that are absent from this film, rendering it almost lifeless. Once in a while, there are some good moments of action, including some good set pieces in both Washington D.C. and New Orleans, but the plot’s execution feels routine. Even the film’s villain is routine, especially since he has an uncanny resemblance to Jai Courtney, who played the killer from the first film.
There are some aspects of Never Go Back worth admiring. One of them is Cobie Smulders. She successfully finds that middle ground of presenting her character’s military expertise and intelligence while displaying her humanity, making her a much more three-dimensional character than our main hero. Also, towards the end of the movie, there is a one-liner she delivers to a character so intensely, that it undermines Cruise’s lines that follow. Clearly, the movie should have focused more on her character.
To Tom Cruise’s credit, he makes the wise decision in toning down the tough-guy persona and the film even has a few touching moments here and there. The scenes involving Reacher and Samantha, in particular, are good, because we get to see the more human side of the character of Jack Reacher, something that I personally felt was absent in the first film. Unfortunately, these merits do not make this film any better than an on-demand rental.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the kind of standard action film that we have seen time and time again since The Fugitive. The emotional bonding scenes between the main characters elevate it slightly, but it displays a surprisingly restrained step down from the first Reacher in terms of filmmaking. Tom Cruise still does not sound seasoned enough to portray a character like Jack Reacher. He may be a 54-year old action star, but I think he sounds more like a high school student who just came back from seeing Dirty Harry.