Jack Reacher, the legendary ex-soldier who now travels around the country as a justice-seeking hitchhiker, has once again found himself in trouble. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, based on Lee Child's thriller novel of the same name, is a sequel to the 2012 film Jack Reacher (itself an adaptation of Child's novel One Shot). This time, Reacher (played once again by Tom Cruise) heads to D.C. for romantic purposes -- he is courting Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) -- but he is instead met by her bristly commanding officer (Holt McCallany), who informs him that Turner has been discharged and arrested following accusations that she committed treason; he then slaps handcuffs on Reacher, on the grounds that he is a suspect in a murder investigation. After Reacher frees Turner from incarceration (naturally) before she is murdered in her cell, he goes on the run as a fugitive alongside a teenager who may be his long-lost daughter (Danika Yarosh). They wind up in New Orleans as they trace the conspiracy to a shady arms dealer, while they're simultaneously being hunted by an unnamed professional killer (Patrick Heusinger).
Essentially, this sequel tosses the lightweight Bourne-esque conceit of the first Reacher film, and instead positions itself as a 21st century version of Hard to Kill or Commando. The action sequences are fun, and Cruise pulls off Reacher's cool, steely charm with typical panache. As a whole, however, the movie begins to reek of '80s-style cheesiness. For viewers who enjoy repeat viewings of Road House, lines like "you're hard to kill, Reacher" and "we hurt the ones close to us" -- both delivered with unsettling earnestness -- may not be such a bummer. But for those already struggling to suspend their disbelief for the outlandish hand-to-hand fight scenes, the writing is a letdown.
Thankfully, Never Go Back is at least a focus-group-tested update of the action romps of Schwarzenegger and Stallone's era. For instance, Turner is portrayed as a capable female counterpart to Reacher, someone who challenges his notion of working as a lone wolf in addition to serving as an intriguing romantic interest. It's great that Smulders, who also plays Agent Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is finally beginning to get the chances on the big screen that she deserves.
Yarosh, already a small-screen vet, is not awarded the same opportunity as the protagonist's possible teenage daughter Samantha, who greets Reacher with alert hostility during their first meeting as a result of living on her own for a while. Her compelling edginess unfortunately fades as the story moves forward, and by the time push comes to literal shove during the climax, Sam has been reduced to a mere damsel in distress. There is very little meaningful character development in this movie, as almost everyone exists to either prove how unstoppable Reacher is (the sole purpose of Heusinger's psychotic hitman, an adrenaline-junkie veteran who could have been fleshed out into a much more compelling figure) or to provide volunteer assistance for these renegade fugitives.
There are better action movies out there, but Never Go Back will be a more-than-pleasant offering for Cruise devotees and fans of Mission: Impossible who can't wait for the series' next installment. Cruise's laconic machismo provides a solid anchor for the film, and he mostly delivers as the military version of Dirty Harry. That said, Never Go Back is still a B-movie masquerading as a blockbuster; there's some fun to be had here, but this is ultimately an inferior product to films that skew either more cerebral or more bombastic. People who love seeing Cruise do his best Steven Seagal impression have no need to fear, though -- contrary to the title, there's almost certainly more of this to come.