“I’m gonna break your arms. I’m gonna break your legs. I’m gonna break your neck. What you hear is excitement.”
Jack Reacher, former Army Major, is a drifter, a wandering angel of justice who always stumbles across wrongs, and inevitably breaks as many bones as it takes to make things right. This time, Reacher (Tom Cruise) finds himself on a mission to clear the name of his long-distance ally and confidant, Major Turner (Cobie Smulders), after she stumbles upon a conspiracy involving stolen weapons and private contractors in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Reacher learns that he may or may not be the father to a teenage girl (Danika Yarosh), and has to figure out how to stay one step ahead of the conspiracy while keeping himself and his new allies alive.
2012’s Jack Reacher, based on the 2005 novel One Shot by Lee Child, was something of a middling box office performer. However, owing to its strong reviews, decent international grosses, and positive audience reception to Tom Cruise as a two-fisted anti-hero, a sequel was put into production. This time around, the film is based on the more recent story, Never Go Back, the 18th Jack Reacher novel, first published in 2013. Unfortunately, a by-the-numbers script and flat direction by Edward Zwick means that Jack Reacher: Never Go Back comes up way short of its predecessor in terms of style and substance. Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Way of the Gun) directed the original film with a reserved grace and a stylishly blunt approach to realism. Edward Zwick has experience with grand tales of action and suspense, with films like The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond under his prestigious belt, but instead of the sweeping imagery of those films, Never Go Back, for the most part, is directed with all the excitement of a standard episode of a boring prime-time procedural.
As half-baked as the direction may be, the film’s first and biggest problem is its cliche-ridden script, co-written by Zwick, along with Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz. The conflict kicks off much too quickly, before the audience gets a chance to learn anything of substance about Major Turner, and then Reacher is quickly saddled with both Turner and his maybe-daughter. Reacher is supposed to be a drifter, a loner. In a franchise built around a single character, sticking him with a slap-dash “family” is a bizarre choice, and one which doesn’t pay off; for the most part, the film is at its best when Reacher scouts ahead on his own, leaving the dead weight behind and bringing the film back to the essence of the original: Jack Reacher, alone against the world.
As much the direction and the script prove to be a surprising mismatch for the character, Tom Cruise is back in perfect form as Jack Reacher, a pint-sized badass with the old-timey western swagger of the best John Wayne characters during lighter moments, combined with the brutal righteousness of Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack when it’s time to kick some butt. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are mostly one-dimensional cutouts: Cobie Smulders’s Major Turner has virtually no characterization whatsoever, and her asexual chemistry with Reacher, while perhaps intentional, certainly isn’t compelling. Meanwhile, beloved character actors like Robert Knepper and Holt McCallany are utterly wasted in their minimal roles. One bright spot is Danika Yarosh, as Reacher’s maybe-daughter. While she often embodies the most annoying “rebellious teenage girl” tropes, she also facilitates many of the film’s quieter and more intimate moments, acting as something of a go-between for Reacher and Turner, adding vitality to their characters. Her chemistry with Tom Cruise is palpable, with Cruise providing a strong aura of paternal energy towards the sweet-but-tough teen.
Aesthetically, like much of the script, the film suffers from a generic “television” look. Dialogue scenes are often flat and lack momentum, while action beats are too kinetic for their own good. Unlike the first film, which relied on old-fashioned composition thanks to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Never Go Back makes use of the talents of Oliver Wood, most famous for his work in the Jason Bourne movies. Unfortunately, that overly-adrenal style doesn’t really translate here, and the results just look muddy and shaky, rather than stylized and engaging.
It’s not all bad news, however. While the main conspiracy falls flat (the twist is so dull and telegraphed, it is embarrassing to see how surprised the characters were when it was finally revealed), the story fares better when it shifts to The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), a vicious assassin hired by the villains to eliminate loose ends. His scenes bring an energy which is sorely lacking in the rest of the film. Also, the final confrontation with between Reacher and one of the villains is easily the main highlight of the movie; their brawl is visceral in a way that will incite cheers and gasps in equal measure, and is one of the coolest and most brutal fights in any movie this year. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film is such a slog.
The first Jack Reacher film was a surprise revelation, a classic good guy/bad guy story with deep characters, an engaging mystery, and inventive action sequences. This sequel is basically the same, but with all of the parts severely watered-down: most of the new characters are dull, the mystery is unraveled by the viewer long before the heroes come up with the answers, and the action is lazily constructed, that last epic fight notwithstanding. Never Go Back has brief flashes of genuine engagement, but simply pales in comparison to its predecessor.