Tom Cruise is “Jack Reacher”

Do not bother to care about Jack Reacher because he doesn’t care about you. This is not the modern-day action hero; the Jason Bourne, the Bruce Wayne, even the Iron Man. Reacher is not here to protect you, and he is not looking for redemption. Reacher is here to punish the bad guys, and he has no interest in earning your sympathy. To enjoy the film, you need to take a lesson from the character: resistance is futile.

Jack Reacher is an anachronism, and so is Tom Cruise. Cruise shaped his movie star persona playing the kind of loose cannons and rogue enforcers that were so popular in the 1980s. See Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and Cocktail for examples. These films reflected the era’s political and cultural focus on the individual, and Tom Cruise was that era’s biggest individual star. As Cruise has aged, he has been forced to expand his reach, examining and poking fun at his alpha-male persona in Magnolia, Tropic Thunder, and Rock of Ages. With Jack Reacher, he is back in the saddle.

Reacher is a mysterious military cop summoned by the suspect in a mass shooting. The case appears to be open and shut: one early morning in Pittsburgh, a former Army sniper picks off five seemingly random people from a parking garage. The opening scene, in which the audience sees through the scope of his sniper as he targets a man, a woman, and even a child, could not be more wrong for this time. I doubt there was one person in the theater whose mind did not drift back to Newtown during this sequence.

And yet, despite the fact that I spent most of the last week railing against movie violence, I found myself grinning like an idiot through Jack Reacher’s bloody mayhem. Cruise struts through the film like a modern-day cowboy, breaking every bone in sight, ignoring the authority of local law enforcement. His investigation leads to discovery of a conspiracy, and the bad guys send their people after him. He dispatches them with emphasis.

The violence in Jack Reacher is entertaining only when viewed through a very particular prism: the film is an homage to the amoralistic, bloody action movies of the 1980s like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and The Terminator. Its hero is a rogue cop who plays by his own rules; he interrupts his killing only long enough to unleash a witticism or two. There is the Russian bad guy, whose back story includes time spent in a Siberian prison. Played by the legendary director Werner Herzog, this villain is a throwback to the era in which the preponderance of Soviet bad guys reflected the Cold War global mentality. These retro elements function as a wink to the audience, and they are crucial to our enjoyment; perceiving the film as a meta-textual riff on ‘80s action movies gives us a comfortable detachment and makes the film’s brutality go down a lot easier.

Like many action movies of the 1980s, Reacher promotes traditional social values. Jack Reacher is a man’s man. He is often shirtless, and his glistening form makes his female partner (Rosamund Pike) breathless. In one scene, he humiliates a vaguely effeminate retail clerk. But he is no homophobe: Reacher also humiliates a young woman and seems to be above sex completely. There is vulnerability in romance, and Reacher has no use for it. His female partner, who clearly enjoys his alpha-maleness, exists only to be victimized and then rescued, never loved.

Jack Reacher is mysterious and dark, and so is Tom Cruise. Fans of the Reacher books booed when Cruise optioned them and cast himself in the lead. Their outrage was based mostly on the discrepancy in size; Reacher is described as huge, almost a giant, while Cruise is 5’7”. But for the film character, Cruise is the perfect actor. Reacher is a man with no past; we learn he has been running for the last several years, but we never know from what. He has no family. He has no desire for intimacy. He is in no way human, which makes Tom Cruise the only actor who could play him.

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher succeeds through sheer force, and so does Tom Cruise. While Cruise once bore the impenetrable sheen of movie star awesomeness, those days are over. The rumors and questions about his marriage to Katie Holmes and his intense, scary commitment to Scientology have made him our weirdest – and now most unlikely – movie star. Usually, what makes a star is our desire to be or be with him. But nobody wants to hang out with Tom Cruise these days, and his star has persisted through charisma. Likewise, the tools with which Reacher dispatches his enemies and saves the day, seemingly without breaking a sweat, can be best described as a unstoppable force of personality.

Yes, the movie is in love with its violence, and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie uses it to bludgeon the viewer into submission. It works marvelously. As the film progresses and the body count gets higher, you’ll settle into the rhythms of its violence and the absence of its moral consideration. Any attempt to relate emotionally to the film or its characters is a fool’s errand; Jack Reacher will only rebuff your advances. But if you let him have his way with you, you can have a pretty good two hours.

NOTE: Despite the big action set pieces, the explosions, and the car chases, Jack Reacher does not need to be seen in the theater. It belongs with its friends – on TBS on a Saturday afternoon.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

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