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Cruise Control

Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise
Paramount Pictures
 118 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Edward Zwick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Movie sequels tend to go in one of two diametrically opposite directions, depending on whether the studio feels that the project has franchise potential. If they deem a project franchise-worthy, they will build upon the first movie, doing everything bigger and (hopefully) better the second time around, with wilder action, more exotic settings, and bigger name co-stars. The best ever example of this concept was probably Terminator 2, a film that raised the stakes enormously on what was already a solid, but more modest original.


On the other hand, sometimes a studio will decide that there is still money to be made from a particular property but that the window is closing. In that case, they go in the complete opposite direction and opt for lesser known (and lower priced) co-stars, a lower budget, and lower production values. Does anyone remember Conan the Destroyer, Grease 2, or any Jaws sequel? Tom Cruise, an actor whose work naturally lends itself to sequels, has gone in both directions. His Mission Impossible films have grown progressively more extravagant, yet somehow more fun to watch. On the other hand, perhaps because Cruise (or his producers) are sensing that his biological action alarm clock is ticking, he has made what seems almost a perfunctory sequel to another popular action film, and probably closed the door on franchise-dom for Jack Reacher.


Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is the lone wolf vigilante who roams the country and shows up when needed to dispense a rather crude form justice to all sorts of bad guys over the course of some 20 action thrillers. And, while Reacher fans were critical of the rather small-in-stature Tom Cruise playing the 6’5” Reacher, both fans of the novels and filmgoers generally approved of Cruise’s first attempt at the role in 2012’s simply titled Jack Reacher. Now, however, it’s four years later, and, while Jack Reacher: Never Go Back still boasts some impressive work by Cruise, aside from his participation, it could easily have been a TV movie.


The plot of Never Go Back will seem quite familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action movie before. Reacher, a former MP himself, strikes up a long-distance friendship with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), the successor to his job, after helping her crack a case. But before he can actually meet her in person, she is arrested and charged with espionage in connection with the death of a couple of soldiers in Afghanistan. Reacher knows a frame-up when he sees it and breaks Turner out of jail, whereupon the two go into hiding, trying to clear her name. It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that a Blackwater-like contractor has been involved in some nasty goings on that Turner got a bit too close to, and the company is now trying to eliminate her and Reacher, with the aid of some crooked army officers and a particularly nasty mercenary hitman nicknamed the Hunter (Patrick Huesinger).


Into this all-too-familiar stew of plot elements, the film adds another staple of action movies, the hitherto unknown child. During the film, Reacher learns that he may be the father of a teenage daughter (Danika Yarosh), who is the proverbial 100 pounds of trouble. She’s a streetwise brat with a disdain for authority who initially wants nothing to do with Reacher or Turner. Of course, everyone in the audience realizes immediately that (1) she’s going to do something stupid and against orders to get herself in trouble, (2) she’ll wind up bonding with Reacher who will also let down his gruff guard with her, (3) she’ll become an easy target for the Hunter, and (4) she’ll prove surprisingly resourceful at a key moment in the movie.


Despite the extreme predictability of the plot (almost everyone in the theater will figure out the villains’ scheme by the halfway point of the movie), Jack Reacher: Never Go Back works far better than it should, and a good deal of the credit goes to Tom Cruise. This movie may have paycheck job written all over it, but Cruise never acts like he’s on cruise control. By now, of course, viewers expect him to punch, kick, and shoot his way convincingly through the action scenes without benefit of a stunt double, but he shows a surprising depth of emotion here, especially in his interactions with young Yarosh. Scenes like this bring back memories of the days when Cruise was a serious actor, garnering a couple of Oscar nominations along the way. Here, it’s actually fun to watch Cruise and Yarosh work their way to the ending everyone knows is coming.


Director Edward Zwick isn’t known as an action director, and the fight and chase scenes in the film have an all too familiar feel to them. They aren’t poorly handled, but Zwick never does anything to make viewers take notice. In particular, the final showdown between Reacher and the Hunter feels like a bit of a letdown. In earlier tangles, the Hunter appears to be getting the upper hand on the older Reacher, but Zwick and the actors almost seem to have forgotten all that by the time the final rooftop hand-to-hand combat takes place. The scene is competently staged but about as memorable as any random showdown on any episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. The fight’s final moment is a particular disappointment for viewers expecting something spectacular.


Credit should also go Cobie Smulders for a shrewd career move. Instead of allowing herself to be typecast as the love interest in an endless parade of romantic comedies based on her lengthy stint on How I Met Your Mother, she credibly launches herself as an action heroine (yes, she appeared in various Marvel films, but it’s so easy for actors to get lost in the Marvel superhero jungle). She worked out for the role, and, as the scene below demonstrates, she handles herself well in a fight.


This fall appears to be the season for big budget action films that are simply okay but lack the spark to be really entertaining or memorable. Like The Magnificent Seven and The Accountant before it, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back won’t send viewers stampeding to the exits, but, one hour after watching it, they’ll be hard pressed to remember anything other than the fact that Tom Cruise is in pretty remarkable physical shape. Cruise is indeed in great shape, but the script of this movie definitely needed some more working out.

In this scene, Tom Cruise breaks Cobie Smulders out of a federal prison.

Read other reviews of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back:


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) on IMDb