Back in the '80s and '90s, movies like Jack Reacher were Paramount Pictures' dime-a-dozen stock-in-trade. One couldn't throw a rock without hitting an airport-novel adaptation like Kiss the Girls or The General's Daughter, with a moody detective investigating a salacious crime.
Paramount puts itself back in the game by doubling down on resurgent star Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol). Cruise plays Jack Reacher, firmly established as the stoical tough-guy hero of seventeen novels by British writer Lee Child. Child's fans complained loudly that the compact Cruise was the wrong type to embody their hulking hero, but never bet against Cruise. With the fancy new credit "A Tom Cruise Production" on his side, Cruise again proves to be the hardest-working man in showbiz.
As such, Jack Reacher is a savvy franchise bid, with Oscar-winning writer Christopher McQuarrie doing double duty as screenwriter and director. He spreads a unearned veneer of intelligence over otherwise dopey material (a feat McQuarrie has signed to repeat for Cruise's "Mission: Impossible 5"), layering in some snappy dialogue, sleek suspense sequences, and punchy action to distract from a plot one character aptly describes as "grassy-knoll ludicrous."
That reference and talk of a "patsy" mark the movie as catnip for conspiracy fans. As adapted from the ninth Reacher novel, One Shot, the picture begins with a gripping sniper set piece running into a wordless montage that ends with a fishy suspect in Pittsburgh P.D. custody. The suspect's only communication: "Get Jack Reacher." Before you can say, well, Jack Reacher, the preternaturally confident former "Army cop" makes the scene and, on reflection, reluctantly agrees to serve as the investigator for public defender Helen Rodin (drippy Rosamund Pike of Die Another Day).
Don't worry: Reacher's no joiner. As played by Cruise in a not-unskilled but largely generic action-hero performance, Reacher is a hard-bitten man with no patience for fools or, as he puts it, "I'm not a hero. I'm a drifter with nothing to lose." And golly, all the women love him: there's not a gal who meets him—Rodin included—who doesn't swoon at his manliness. Though that dog don't exactly hunt, the plot does lead to a gun range, where Reacher befriends its elderly manly-man proprietor, played by in-demand chucklin' ol' toughie Robert Duvall.
Since Helen is also the D.A.'s daughter (may I remind you? airport novel), suggestions of high-reaching political conspiracy hit home. Could her father (Richard Jenkins), or perhaps top-cop Emerson (David Oyelowo), be involved with the sinister German puttering around in the shadows? And could we be more excited that the sinister German is played by ever-insinuating Euro-weirdo Werner Herzog?
Look, Jack Reacher is by no means a good film. It's not even a particularly good movie. But the thing does have two fistfights, a car chase, and a shootout. So if you're on the run from three-hour awards-season dramas, Jack Reacher may fill the bill.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]