“Jack Reacher”… The man with no game

Since the announcement of Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher – adapted from one of a series of novels by Lee Child featuring the eponymous protagonist – the sturdy fan base of the author has been up in arms, and it isn’t difficult to see why. According to the official web site of Child and Reacher, these are the man’s measurements: 6’5”, 220-250 lbs., 50” chest. Hair: Dirty-blond. The character, in short, should be played by a muscle-mountain like Dolph Lundgren. The screen, instead, is occupied by an actor who, in tabloid photographs, barely managed to scrape Katie Holmes’s chin. Even so, at first, we may wonder if all that Tom Cruise backlash wasn’t an overreaction. When the London stage, earlier this year, welcomed an all-black version of Julius Caesar, we didn’t hear of pitchfork-wielding Shakespeare fans in a froth about the Roman senate appearing to house the cast of The Color Purple. This is what interpretations do. Books are books. Movies are movies. This is what artistic liberty is.

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Seeing the film, though, we realise why Cruise is so wrong for the part. It’s not because he isn’t tall enough to play Jack Reacher, but because his screen presence isn’t big enough to embody a mythical archetype. When we first hear of Reacher, he’s dropped off the grid – a ghost. He has no credit history, no known address, no PO Box even. This much is not a problem. Cruise plays a similarly shadowy character in the Mission: Impossible movies – but where those films are about gadgets and ingenuity, Jack Reacher requires its leading man to routinely employ his fists against men at least a head taller. After a while, it begins to look silly, like Salman Khan in the Dabangg movies. Reacher even gets to mouth punch dialogues, as when he points a gun at a glass-eyed villain (Werner Herzog, of all people) and intones, “I was born in October. When I get to my birthday I’m going to pull the trigger. One, two…” At least in Dabangg, we’re not meant to take any of this seriously.

The film, set in Pittsburgh, is essentially a transplanted Western. Reacher is the The Man with No Name, the iconoclastic drifter and outsider who steps into a (metaphorical) war zone, ticks people off, sets things right, and rides off into the sunset. (Okay, he takes a bus.) McQuarrie even treats the (pulp) material like a Western, right down to the barroom brawl. The initial scenes – detailing a sniper on a rooftop picking off apparently random civilians who stroll across his scope (and what a time for this film to appear, on the trail of the horrific Newton killings) – are set to jangling music, but entire stretches thereon unfold in silence. If this had been the frontier, we would have heard the wind whistle. With all this jaw-clenched mythmaking punctuated by cynical quips, we needed someone who could channel the best of Clint Eastwood and Humphrey Bogart. Which living actor has that kind of stature?

McQuarrie opts for an unflashy, deadpan style that unfortunately ends up flattening the action – the film frequently runs out of steam. This is the kind of labyrinthine thriller where the shadows have shadows, and we’re meant to hang on to revelations that hint that the sniper may be innocent, but the game is given away at midpoint. There are no further surprises, and we’re left with nothing to look forward to but the climactic confrontation, where Cruise throws away an automatic weapon so that he can bury his bare knuckles into his opponent, who’s, of course, a head taller. A cracker of a supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins and Robert Duvall, does help matters, though the most pointed part is played by Rosamund Pike, as a lawyer who co-opts Reacher in her quest to keep the sniper off death row. In a no-nonsense pulp thriller, this couple would have tumbled into a sweaty bed en route to a hard-boiled happily-ever-after, but in these mythical climes, she has to be content with leaning against his arm. How can she take his name when he has none?

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

10 thoughts on ““Jack Reacher”… The man with no game

  1. Well my take was that while it seems to play it serious , theres a lot of fun being had. Its sort of ridiculous to even have a character that can do all that Jack Reacher can supposedly do. Plus cant think of a recent english movie where a hero bangs the heads of 2 sideys into each other.

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  2. karbarak: Yeah, that sidey head-banging scene was fun :-)

    Anita: Thanks. I checked in the NY Times and it’s, as you say, Newtown. But I did read a lot of reports where the name was spelt Newton.

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  3. Baddy, it is Newtown da, not Newton. I even passed by earlier this week on my way to DC.

    Happy New Year!!

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  4. I might be late to the party here, but I have to say it’s… bemusing (or should I say amusing)… to read your reviews of action films, because they’re mostly diametrically opposed to my own (AND to majority of the critics for this particular film). Because my take away from this was that Tom Cruise was one of the few actors that could have played this part. Did you notice that wherever Reacher goes, women smile at him? Fawn over him? Could you even imagine someone like Lundgren/Schwarzenegger even getting that sort of reaction from women?

    But that’s sorta removed from the point. The reason your critiques of action films are different is because you never seem to critique the central trope contained within these action films (especially action films of the 90s ilk) – the ACTION. There’s absolutely no praise here for the amazing direction of that car chase (better, IMO, than Quantum of Solace’s intro), the gun fights (although this may be a tad insensitive in light of Newtown)…

    But then again, your reviews have never been analytical essays so much as an analysis of what you felt when watching the film (usually with admirably apt analogies to other films and pop culture moments).

    Thank you so much for giving us these reviews. :D

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  5. Aurora Vampiris: If I didn’t talk about the action here, it’s because I wasn’t terribly impressed by it. I did talk about action in my reviews of “Skyfall” and “The Expendables 2,” where I said: “If you feel a buzz of pleasure when Sylvester Stallone slips on knuckledusters, you know you’re in the right movie.” :-)

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  6. Apologies. I had forgotten that.

    What I did mean to say was that your reviews aren’t quite dissertations that would cover all the technical high and low points a film hits, so much as raw pieces about what struck you most within a film.

    Makes your reviews different is all I’m sayin’ (and that’s a good thing). Unlike, say, the more “Western” online reviews I read from sites like io9, AICN or Chud, which wax lyrical about McQuarrie’s chase scenes and ‘realistic’ (I think they meant it’s relatively realistic compared to Die Hard) gun battles.

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  7. you need to watch Django Unchained and review that….I’m quite sure you will be blown away by all the subtexts…

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