Wednesday, May 8, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Cruise gets the job done in enjoyably retro "Jack Reacher"

Jack Reacher (2012)
130 min., rated PG-13.

Fervent readers of author Lee Child's popular series may have trouble with the discrepancy of title character Jack Reacher being 6'5" and built like a 250-pound brick shithouse and the casting of the 5'7" Tom Cruise. But so what if the star would be picked last for the basketball team or lose the title for Mr. Olympia 2012? "Jack Reacher" is, first and foremost, a vehicle for Cruise to be Cruise, who is a movie star that invented charisma and tough-guy posturing. Best known for writing the Oscar-winning "The Usual Suspects" and only helming one feature before (2000's pulpy disappointment "The Way of the Gun"), writer-director Christopher McQuarrie adapts Child's book "One Shot" for the screen. 

The quiet, clinical, heart-pounding opening sequence of a sniper looking through his scope and taking down random passersby across from the Pittsburgh Pirates' PNC Park seems uncomfortably opportunistic in the wake of the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Fortunately, the queasy coincidence and unfortunate timing don't hurt "Jack Reacher," which is, on its own terms, just a slickly made, plainly enjoyable retro action-thriller for winter escapist fare. Said sniper is thought to be James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a seemingly disturbed Iraqi soldier. After the suspect is brought in and jots down, "GET JACK REACHER," on a notepad before slipping into a coma, a detective (David Oyelowo) and D.A. (Richard Jenkins) are quickly dropped in by the one Jack Reacher. Now living off the grid, he is an ex-military ghost without any driver's license, residence, or credit history (he takes the bus and uses pay phones instead). Saddling up with a lawyer, Helen (Rosamund Pike), who's working to keep the accused gunman off death row, Reacher begins uncovering a conspiracy and isn't bluffing when he says he's going to bring the bad guys to justice.

50-year-old Cruise (who also produced) might be miscast as the enigmatic Jack Reacher when comparing the actor's physical description with the protagonist from the source material, but who really cares? Cruise believably fills the bigger shoes (and frame), effortlessly doing this kind of smooth, stoic thing in his sleep. Instead of constantly flashing his megawatt smile, he taps into no-nonsense, laser-focused mode, where Cruise's special skills as a superstar and actor seem perfect for Reacher's own skill set. Pike is ultimately relegated to playing "the girl," but apart from some bug-eyed reactions, she plays well off of the hunky star, who keeps hinting at making her his love interest but never gives in to that convention. Otherwise, Jenkins and Oyelowo capably play red herrings, and Robert Duvall is fun to watch as the salty shooting-range owner who later becomes Reacher's unlikely sidekick. Literally stepping out of the shadows, German film director Werner Herzog (in a stroke of offbeat stunt casting) makes for a creepy, hammy, cold-blooded bad guy, goofily known as The Zec, who doesn't play around (he forces his weakest thug to nearly bite off his own finger). One wouldn't mind seeing a movie all about him. Also worth mentioning: Jai Courtney, playing the lead henchman, is brutish and intimidating.

The film's central mystery surrounding Barr isn't much of a John Grisham-tight mystery, but McQuarrie's script is pretty involving and benefits from a surprising sense of humor. Reacher is never without a crackling, deadpan quip. When he walks into an auto parts store to interrogate an employee for information, the floor manager says that he'll need to see something (as in his I.D.) and Reacher replies with, "How about the inside of an ambulance?" And one of the best threat-monologues of the year that wasn't in "Taken 2"? "I am not a hero. I'm a drifter with nothing to lose...I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot" (and that's just an excerpt). When the shooting's five innocent victims are given empathetic backstories, there are even a few intriguing twists there that Reacher can seem to predict, as if he's watching the footage that only the audience sees. He's just that good, apparently. But the details of the plot barely matter here, unless a lack of credibility easily distracts you. Alas, if there are any dead spots in the steady pace, it's in the middle. In a scene that shifts from overly expository to self-serious, Reacher and Helen go over the case (the plot), calling it "grassy-knoll ludicrous" and "ridiculous" and equating it to a game of "Clue," and then he gives her a pep talk that nearly stops the momentum dead in its tracks…until it doesn't. 

Once the action picks back up, the set pieces are assuredly executed and thankfully not edited into incoherence. There's a bone-crunchingly violent/funny one-against-five fist fight outside of a bar, a well-choreographed bit of slapstick in a bathroom with two thuggish stooges who can't properly swing a baseball bat, and a brutal brawl in the rain. The real show-stopper, though, is a thrilling, fluidly shot high-speed car chase that makes great use of a red '70 Chevelle through downtown Pittsburgh and ends amusingly with a Pirates cap. Overlong and about as memorable as a grab-and-go sandwich from Starbucks, "Jack Reacher" is still more than watchable as a rock-solid ride with plenty of pleasures once you get past the unsettling, too-close-to-home first scene. If Cruise's intentionally opaque antihero spawns a franchise that hopefully reveals a layered human being, no complaints here.


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