Friday, December 28, 2012

'Jack Reacher' delivers action with smarts

"Jack Reacher" opens with a shooter making preparations to go on a shooting spree. We are forced to see through the shooter's scope as he picks off five people in a crowd. This would be difficult to see in any context, but given the recent school shooting in Connecticut it is particularly rough to watch.

Despite that disturbing opening, the film does prove to be quality entertainment, as odd as that may sound. Don't mistake me here, the shooting of innocent civilians is by no means entertaining. The film is not exploitive or callous with its imagery.

The entertainment value comes from the retribution and justice dished out by Tom Cruise as the title character, a righteous ex-military cop. This isn't just some mindless revenge-film though. There is humor, ranging from slapstick to sharp, biting banter, that helps lighten the mood without going as far as trivializing the subject matter.

Reacher is the star of 17 books by Lee Child. His first film appearance is taken from the novel "One Shot." There have been rather vocal discussions from fans that the 5-foot-7 Cruise has no business playing the 6-foot-5 Reacher.

Having not read any of the books, I can't say whether Cruise captures the essence of the character, but, as the film version of the character, he's entirely believable as a tough guy able to handle himself in a five on one fight. Reacher is more than just a brute though and Cruise is also strong at portraying a brilliant investigative mind that is able to see things others have missed.

Reacher enters this story upon hearing about the shooting. He knows a secret from the shooter's past and wants to make sure he pays for his crime. His tune changes when he starts looking closer at the crime with the help of the defense lawyer (Rosamund Pike) on the case. Soon it becomes clear to Reacher that the shooting was a frame job. As he begins digging deeper he uncovers conspiracies tied to a mysterious man known as The Zec (Werner Herzog).

The film is written for the screen and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, best known for writing "The Usual Suspects." Again, having not read "One Shot," I don't know how much of the dialogue comes directly from the book, but it is sharply written and often has a sardonic wit to it. The fight scenes, which are often brutal and visceral, are also presented with a darkly comic tone.

There's an exciting chase scene featuring Cruise behind the wheel of red muscle car (a Chevrolet Chevelle SS) mostly because vintage cars look way cooler than newer ones. The chase is well executed and engaging, but the punchline to the scene is what makes the scene one of the more memorable and clever chases in recent years.

Cruise, who was also the film's producer, has surrounded himself with a solid supporting cast. Most notably the reliable character actor Richard Jenkins as a district attorney and Robert Duvall as the owner of a gun range. Duvall doesn't show up until the final third of the film, but brings an unpredictable and fun energy to the proceedings.

Pike is a good foil to Cruise, but she is a strong actress with little to play. She is mostly required to listen to Reacher's theories and be skeptical at first only to then marvel at how brilliant he is. She spends most of the film in wide-eyed shock of the unfolding events.

German director Herzog has some fun as the villain, but is largely wasted. He has one truly unsettling monologue that sets him up to be a great, memorable villain, but then he spends the rest of the film simply trying to look scary or intimidating.

It is Cruise that makes all this work. Cruise has always been a charismatic screen presence, but now the older model Cruise seems even more in control of his swagger. He flashes his charming grin a few times, but for the most, he is comes across as focused and determined. It is a performance that recalls his steel cold villainy in "Collateral," but this time used for good.

Cruise is a great movie star, so it is easy to forget how good of an actor he can truly be. "Jack Reacher" reminds you of both.

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