Thursday, December 27, 2012

"drink your blood from a boot":
a review of "Jack Reacher"

"Jack Reacher" is a ball-busting action thriller that stars Tom Cruise, as an ex-Army investigator and former military policeman, alongside a stable of Brits and Aussies doing American accents: Englishwoman Rosamund Pike plays Helen Rodin, the very American daughter of local district attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins); fellow Englishman David Oyelowo is Emerson, a police investigator; and Aussie Jai Courtney plays the sniper who downs five people, seemingly at random, at the beginning of the story. For the Yanks: Robert Duvall makes a welcome appearance as an old Marine gunnery sergeant who now runs a shooting range and still has some mad skilz with the long gun, and native Chicagoan Joseph Sikora plays James Barr, the ex-Army sniper immediately suspected of the killings and brought in by the police.

The action takes place in the Midwest (the film was actually shot on location in Pittsburgh). It begins with the killing of the five aforementioned "random" strangers, then moves quickly to the bringing-in of James Barr who, instead of signing his confession, writes "Get Jack Reacher" on the document. Speak of the devil and he will appear: Reacher, having seen Barr's apparent shootings on the news, materializes in the law offices of Alex Rodin to ask after his fellow Iraq veteran. At first, the case seems open and shut, but with the persuasion of Helen Rodin, a super-competent defense lawyer with daddy issues, Reacher agrees not to return to his current life as an off-the-grid drifter. He's taken on by Rodin fille as her lead investigator, and not long after, Reacher (who has an eidetic memory and never takes notes) begins to think that James Barr has been set up: the crime scene was laid out a little too perfectly, and much hangs on a single quarter deposited in a parking meter ("Why would [the sniper bother to] pay for parking?" Reacher wonders aloud). As Reacher closes in on the truth, which involves the Russian mafia and some dirty business dealings, he's pursued by hired thugs of varying levels of ineptitude, and the whole thing concludes with a gunfight in the rain at a construction site.

The movie felt like a throwback to 1980s action flicks: the tough-man dialogue (painfully corny at times), the requisite car chase (in which the actors all did their own stunt driving), the woman breathlessly asking the hero at the end, "Where will you be? What will you do?"—the movie was full of clichés. But these were welcome clichés because I think we viewers all knew we were involved in something retro: as my buddy Steve noted, there was, thankfully, no CGI; and the audience reacted appreciatively to the action and dialogue, whether it was Reacher's tossing off humorous intimations that a young girl was a slut, or his knocking one man out by using another man's skull. We all reveled in this display of the Old School.

"Jack Reacher" is part "24," part "The Presidio" (I kept mentally replacing Tom Cruise with Mark Harmon, who looks like Cruise's older, blue-eyed brother), part "NCIS," and part "Dirty Harry." It leaves some enormous plot holes in its wake (Reacher will surely be wanted for several murders by the end of the film), but in the spirit of the 1980s action genre, the movie, like Reacher himself, just doesn't give a fuck. Despite its obvious artistic shortcomings, "Reacher" turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable. It did what any movie should do: provide the audience with an emotionally compelling story and memorable—albeit somewhat flat—characters. It also kept me guessing as to who the real bad guys were, and it managed to avoid several potentially predictable moments: Helen, in her car, didn't get garotted by a deadly stowaway; a sniper's bullet didn't come slamming through a large office window, despite the characters' having spent minutes in front of that window; a defeated enemy didn't startlingly reappear in the final scene to exact revenge.

Tom Cruise is a tiny guy (5'7"); this means that it's up to his acting ability to make us take him seriously. The movie is based on One Shot, the ninth book of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, and Child describes Reacher as huge—of Kevin-scale height and weight, i.e., 6-foot-something and almost three Benjamins in poundage. Cruise takes to the role convincingly; the impressive fight choreography (you know I'm a fight-choreography junkie, right?) plays to Cruise's nimbleness, energy, and small stature. He also convinces us that Jack Reacher, despite his rootlessness, despite his ambivalent relationship with his own military past, is earnest. At one point in the middle of the movie, Reacher is standing before that plate-glass window, and he gives Helen Rodin a speech—almost a Shakespearean soliloquy—about the ironic reality of the "freedom" that our soldiers are tasked to defend, a freedom that amounts to little more than cubicle slavery and janitorial duties. The speech felt, to me, almost as if it didn't belong in the film, but it was strangely gripping all the same, and it did much to cement the idea that Reacher is a man with a simple heart who means what he says and says what he means. This might make him a flat character, but it's obvious his character was conceived as the film's moral anchor. That, if nothing else, connects Jack Reacher to Dirty Harry Callahan.

The cast does a fine job, overall. Rosamund Pike, whom I first saw in "An Education," still registers with a weird-yet-charming vibe in this film; Richard Jenkins as her maybe-guilty dad gives a workmanlike performance; David Oyelowo has the poise of a Poitier; and the arrival of Robert Duvall brought a communal sigh from our audience: Jesus, we're saved! If Jack Reacher is the film's moral anchor, Duvall's Gunny Cash is Reacher's. As I mentioned, some of the dialogue is corny as hell, but it'll put you in a nostalgic, '80s frame of mind.

So in the end, I'd recommend "Jack Reacher." You might be surprised at how much fun you have watching it, especially if you have an appreciative audience to watch it with.


ADDENDUM: Special mention for documentarian Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man"), who appears as "the Zec" (i.e., "the Prisoner"), a fingerless Russian mafioso and ex-inmate of a Siberian labor camp who is the mastermind behind the story's shenanigans. Herzog doesn't drop his native German accent in favor of a Russian one, so it's a bit of a stretch to imagine him as Russian, but his screen presence is nevertheless compelling.


Charles said...

I was wondering what you would say about this film after reading your earlier announcement. Actually, it doesn't surprise me too much to hear you recommend it, considering Cruise's recent output: Tropic Thunder, Knight and Day, Ghost Protocol, and Rock of ages (all of which I enjoyed--never did see Valkyrie, though, so I can't comment on that). He seems to be on a string of winners, or at least turning out very watchable films.

Kevin Kim said...

"Tropic Thunder" is still, to my mind, Cruise's best work. Les Grossman lives!!

Charles said...

That film is genius. We loved it.

Shayari said...

I enjoyed watching the movie, although its unlike other Tom's movies, but it has a share of good narration and suspense. Tom was as usual charming with his skills. It's not a movie with "oh my gosh" expressional but definitely demand a watch. Go and enjoy the movie.