You wouldn’t think a film like Jack Reacher would embed itself in the national debate, but here we are. It opens with a sniper setting up across the river from Pittsburgh’s PNC Park… zeroing in on a half dozen innocent victims before cutting them down with the cold brutality of a true psychopath. The echoes of Newtown, Connecticut are hard to deny: an inelegant bit of timing that actually sheds insight on our response to the tragedy. Unlike the real news, this piece of make-believe places a priority on the victims of its shooting as much as the killer. It focuses on the pain caused as well as the reasons for causing it. And it actually approaches the subject of violence from a thoughtful informed perspective, in contrast to the thinly-veiled hysterics of the so-called real news. Naturally, people are quick to use it as a scapegoat for the violence in Newtown: supposed proof that our entertainment industry is “out of control.” I wish the real news could be as “out of control” as this movie, which proves that even simple entertainment can still hold a mirror up to us right when we need it to.
Thankfully, it also works as straightforward filmmaking, with help from an intelligent script and the direction needed to carry it off. Both stem from Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for penning The Usual Suspects. This is only his second time behind the camera, but he shows a lot of skill with this kind of material... even more than his flawed-but-interesting debut feature The Way of the Gun.
And as usual, the advertising campaign misrepresents what this film is all about. The commercials play like a pure Tom Cruise vehicle, promising nothing more than the ability to watch him beat the crap out of people for two-plus hours. Cruise is great, but the movie doesn’t need him to thrive, relying instead on meaty dialogue and a terrific whodunit to maintain forward momentum. The random shooting soon produces a suspect, thanks to a wealth of evidence and some speedy police work. The supposed killer doesn’t say a word; he simply writes “Get Jack Reacher” on a piece of paper. Reacher (Cruise) is an ex-MP who now lives life completely off the grid. He’s serious bad news, of course, but he also thinks the suspect is guilty. Only gradually does he become convinced otherwise, turning a seemingly random act of violence into something far more calculated.
McQuarrie walks a thin line between brutality and self-parody, echoing Tarantino’s self-referential habits, but still demanding at least a modicum of realism. The resulting balance is quite impressive, marked by gorgeous hard-boiled dialogue that acknowledges its own artifice just often enough to keep the film from wallowing in excessive self-regard. The mystery itself contains an agreeable number of twists and turns, most smart enough to surprise us. More importantly, he doesn’t cheat. Each clue is carefully conceived and intelligently executed; each one makes sense without pandering to the lowest common denominator. We know who’s behind it all (and credit Jack Reacher for finding a superb villain), but not how or why, and McQuarrie makes his macguffins work time and again to keep us engaged.
He also scores with the set pieces, particularly a climactic gunfight that confirms his knack for engaging mayhem. An extended car chase does slightly less well (though it still holds our attention) and the very end contains an unnecessary bit of silliness, but otherwise the auteur’s attention to detail delivers some terrific mayhem.
In the end, it’s all make-believe… though decidedly grown-up make-believe that speaks to adult sensibilities. Some of the violence is quite intense despite its comparative bloodlessness, and the plot demands the kind of attention that your average teen may not have patience for. That might make it the perfect escape from the Oscar bait and shrill populist cash grabs crowding the theaters: a reminder that even straightforward entertainment can still engage us. It may even give us a little something to think about on our way back to the car.