2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, an enormously fun action movie that doubles as a clever riff on videogame motifs (a fact self-consciously indicated by its tagline: “Live. Die. Repeat.”) was one of the year’s biggest and best surprises, even if The Onion kind of got to it first. Starring the always Tom Cruise-like Tom Cruise and featuring a terrific turn from Emily Blount as his mentor/sidekick/love interest, it played with his eternally cocky persona in amusing ways, and ended up being the most enjoyable popcorn movie I’ve seen in years. It’s smart enough to hold your interest while also never taking itself too seriously.
Jack Reacher, from two years prior, is no Edge of Tomorrow, but it has a few things going for it. (The terminal blandness of its title is not among these, however.) Adapted from the Lee Child series, it’s a straight-ahead, conspiracy-minded whodunit, and it wants nothing more than to keep you occupied as it goes through the motions, occasionally with a measure of wit amid all the shit exploding and engines revving. Sometimes that’s enough.
Cruise is the title character, whose name I’ve already forgotten. Oh, wait, it’s Jack Reacher. Yes, right. Cruise is Jack Reacher, a man with no fixed address, no record, no contact information – a nowhere man. After a deranged, former-Army gunman kills several people in a downtown square and is apprehended, his only words to police are: “Get Jack Reacher.” Turns out they have a history (wouldn’t you know it!): the same shooter killed several unarmed civilians overseas, and was investigated by Reacher in his former capacity as a military cop. It’s an open-and-shut case – a loner with a violent history committing an atrocity in peacetime. What else could there be to say?
You will be unsurprised to discover there are other things to say.
For reasons both too involved and too silly to explain, Reacher doubts his guilt. Two 2014 standouts show up to flesh things out: Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike, an idealist convinced that capital cases are sending innocent men to death row (and not coincidentally the daughter of the District Attorney), takes on the shooter’s case, and Selma’s David Oyelowo leads the investigation and is convinced of his guilt. (Incidentally, my favorite moment of the film viewing experience came when my fellow audience member shouted, “Holy shit, Martin Luther King just tazed that lady!”) There are secrets behind secrets here, of course, and it’s up to Reacher to connect the threads.
This is all by-the-numbers stuff, and Jack Reacher never really elevates itself beyond its procedural template, despite giving Cruise some hilariously self-conscious one-liners and stock phrases, and allowing Robert Duvall, as the owner of a local gun range with a connection to the case, to go around muttering the sort of grouchy things one assumes Robert Duvall mutters all the time, even at his house. In any case, it’s all plenty enjoyable, if this is the kind of movie you’re in the mood for.
And that would be the end of things, if not for one crucial detail: the villain is played by (wait for it) Werner Herzog, a man who can effortlessly convey brooding menace simply by sitting in a chair and glaring at you. Here, the esteemed director and world-class weirdo radiates maniacal nihilism – it doesn’t hurt that his character survived earlier trauma by literally eating his own frostbitten fingers before gangrene could set in. In one scene, he offers a victim a chance at salvation … under the conditions that he do the same. Yikes – do not cross Werner Herzog.
There’s been talk of a sequel, and I’d show up for it if it ever happens. Jack Reacher isn’t a masterpiece, or even a particularly memorable action movie, but it’s perfectly adequate. And it imparts one impossible-to-miss lesson: finger-eating Werner Herzog should be the villain in every movie.