The Dream of the 90s Is Alive in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
Directed by Edward Zwick
Opens October 21

In his best recent film, Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise traveled back in time to relive the same day, over and over. In the Jack Reacher series, Tom Cruise travels back in time to relive the 90s, only in an alternate version of that decade. Instead of spending it working with some of the best directors available, Cruise’s re-do finds him doing the kind of mid-level, middle-age-audience action thrillers that might have propped up the likes of Kurt Russell, or Harrison Ford in a down year, and no one is more rock-solid mid-level than Jack Reacher, former army guy and current drifter.

The contents of Reacher’s pockets—identified early in Jack Reacher: Never Got Back as an expired military ID, a toothbrush, and thirty-eight bucks in cash—signal his minimalist lifestyle. He hitchhikes, he travels by bus, he stays in crummy motels and eats in crummy diners. He’s the kind of guy who holes up in an IHOP and doesn’t even order pancakes, just eggs and toast. He’s a walking throwback, not just because of his no-frills moral code (which is vague), but also because he uses burner phones and internet cafes. This is not a thriller where control-room nerds shout “enhance!” at drone-supplied surveillance footage. This is Tom Cruise, running, punching, and glowering.

He also solves mysteries. Having established a flirty phone-only relationship with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), he turns up at her DC office to meet her in person (via traveling montage that sees Cruise happily sitting on the flatbed of a truck, arm around a dog; what could be more American?), only to find that she’s been arrested for espionage. Reacher takes the case, even though she specifically asks him not to. It leads to crooked military contractors, conspiratorial frame jobs, and a teenage urchin (Danika Yarosh) whose parentage is another mystery—could be a little Jane Reacher, is what I’m saying. All three of them go on the run, at one point ending up in New Orleans, cultural center and home to many late-period Nic Cage thrillers.

The Jack Reacher movies harken back to a time when those Nic Cage thrillers wouldn’t go indirect-to-VOD, and when Cruise ruled the box office; never go back, indeed. As a character, Reacher has all of the Cruise cockiness but wears it more stoically, and paired with the movie’s ground-level action (fights, foot chases, shoot-outs) makes the whole thing an odd but effective complement to Cruise’s big-ticket, revolving-auteur Mission: Impossible series. Cruise doesn’t seem to get as many meetings with big auteurs lately, which may be why he reteams with his Last Samurai director Edward Zwick here. With Zwick on board, it may actually be more authentically ’90s than its predecessor, which Christopher McQuarrie infused with some throwback-of-a-throwback style (which is to say, the 90s meets its retro decade of choice, the 70s). Zwick’s movie is blockier, heavier-footed, and less assured. There isn’t a lot of visual style, beyond the decision to shoot on film, a few moments where Zwick lights his actors with the flashes of police lights, and an ever-so-slightly Brian De Palma-esque burst of fireworks during a climactic rooftop confrontation.

This is a slightly squishier movie than its processor, too, with a screenplay that gives Reacher a surrogate family unit. It’s not a bad wrinkle, but probably something that could have waited until Jack Reacher 3 or later (and indeed, in the popular series of novels by Lee Child, did: this is based on the eighteenth Reacher novel, while the first movie was based on the ninth). But there are clear pleasures in the movie’s professionalism, just this side of lunkheaded; there are pleasures in the way Cruise doggedly corrects everyone who addresses him as “Major” with an automatic “ex-major,” or the way Cobie Smulders runs alongside consummate onscreen runner Cruise, keeping up.

As odd as it is that this leading man insists on playing action heroes more often as he Cruises his way through his fifties, he also allows himself to get knocked around more onscreen. Reacher, even more so than the slapstick-abused superman Ethan Hunt, sustains cuts and bruises. After an early fight scene, Reacher and Turner retire to one of Reacher’s trademark seedy motel rooms to gingerly rest their post-right soreness. It’s a brief acknowledgment of the human body’s limitations, but a welcome one. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the same, but with a movie star’s career. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that it’s not as it once was (all the character actors who should be in this movie are over in Ben Affleck’s The Accountant) but that star power and airport-novel craftsmanship can still deliver some old-fashioned goods. I watched The Girl on the Train and The Accountant wishing they had been directed by De Palma to properly goose their lurid thrills. Jack Reacher, bless him, doesn’t need the help.

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