11:26 AM EST, December 20, 2012
Considered outside the context of the bloody December so far, "Jack Reacher" does its work sleekly and well. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie filmed the adaptation of the Lee Child book "One Shot" (one of many Reacher adventures) in Pittsburgh, with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel lending the project a handsome, burnished sheen.
To be sure, devotees of the Reacher novels have complained plenty about the casting of Tom Cruise as the ex-military policeman, trained sniper and crack investigator. In the books he's a hulking 6-foot-5; Cruise is not. That bug you? It doesn't bug me. Whatever. It's just a few inches. It's not like casting Gollum in "Magic Mike" or something.
In the production notes issued by Paramount Pictures, Cruise describes Reacher as "sort of a Dirty Harry, a James Bond, a Josey Wales." This, Cruise hopes, puts the results determinedly in Eastwood country. Reacher is an avenging angel, a man living by his own code of honor. A deductive genius and a drifter, he's seen his share of horrors in war. He's off the grid and, in terms of righteously indignant slaughter, off the charts.
And here's the truth. The truth is, we cannot drain a moviegoing experience of its context. "Jack Reacher" is not an easy movie to enjoy at this particular moment. Not in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school killings and the 28 dead.
This happens with each new gun-related massacre in America. A violent movie opens following a shooting, and the movie's violence no longer plays the way it did the week before. "Jack Reacher" begins with five dead by a sniper's bullets, putting the audience in the catbird seat, behind the scope of the shooter's rifle. It's the perspective floating through so many gamers' stray thoughts, whether pretend killing in front of a screen or doing something else and wishing they were.
"Jack Reacher" sets up the title character as a steely smarty pants, never wrong, always righteous. The accused killer, coming out of a coma, asks for Reacher to help clear his name. They knew each other once. Rosamund Pike, English by birth but American by accent, husky-voices her way through the role of the defense attorney who's the daughter of the district attorney (Richard Jenkins). What is the truth behind this open-and-shut case? Who is involved in the probable conspiracy?
A hint, though not a spoiler: It has something to do with the Russian mobster known as The Zec, played by filmmaker Werner Herzog with a fake, milky-blue eye. He's not required to act here, exactly; rather, he must simply be, and be scary. At one point he seethes: "I spent my first winter as a prisoner in Siberia wearing a dead man's coat. I chewed these fingers off before the frostbite could turn to gangrene." This certainly takes your mind off all the glorified firearm violence on display.
Robert Duvall has some fun as a shooting range owner who comes to the rescue during the (protracted) climax, which takes place in a rock quarry at night. McQuarrie, who wrote "The Usual Suspects," is a real writer; his banter has snap and bite. His directorial skills are still catching up with his writing skills; the movie loses steam in the final half-hour.
Up until then it's diverting stuff. But it's not easy to take "Jack Reacher" in the intended escapist spirit. Not with so many close-ups of so many bullets, and so many guns given their glinty moment in the sun.
'Jack Reacher' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and some drug material)
Running time: 2:10
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