Twelve years after making his feature-directorial debut with Way of the Gun, Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) brings Lee Child's itinerant problem solver to the screen in Jack Reacher, a mediocre Tom Cruise mystery thriller that's entertaining in the moment but instantly forgettable.
When a crazed sniper guns down five seemingly random people on a crowded Pittsburgh riverfront, Det. Emerson (David Oyelowo) quickly amasses enough evidence at the scene to implicate an unstable ex-military sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora). Upon being questioned by Emerson and DA Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins), however, Barr demands to speak with Jack Reacher (Cruise). A former military investigator who fell off the grid following his service, Reacher soon shows up on the scene and begins gathering clues with the aid of talented defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), the daughter of the DA. Meanwhile, when Reacher is assaulted in a local bar, he correctly surmises that someone is determined to impede his investigation. His theory plays out when he becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman shortly thereafter. Now, with the police closing in from one side and a gang of ruthless killers gaining ground on the other, Reacher must use his formidable detective skills in order to catch the gunman and uncover his true motives.
Jack Reacher isn't necessarily a "bad" example of the genre -- the performances are generally serviceable, McQuarrie's direction is solid, the mystery unfolds at a satisfying pace, and there's some smart humor scattered throughout -- but it does suffer from a few key flaws that prevent it from being anything more than utterly average. The first culprit is McQuarrie's script, an efficient adaptation of Child's novel that does a fine job of setting up the mystery, yet completely fumbles when it comes to motivation. We're only given the most basic details about why the initial killings occurred, but even after the mystery has been solved, it still isn't clear exactly what the main villain had to do with it. Which leads us directly to the movie's second biggest (and arguably most egregious) flaw: a complete missed opportunity in casting Werner Herzog as the primary villain. A veteran filmmaker who's fairly selective when it comes to accepting onscreen roles, Herzog is given precious little to do in Jack Reacher other than lurk in the shadows for the majority of the running time and deliver a single speech that establishes just how ruthless and malevolent his character is. Anyone who's ever savored Herzog's measured narration in documentaries like Encounters at the End of the World and Into the Abyss can easily imagine just how effective the multifaceted director could be at making our blood run cold at the mere sound of his voice, and although he does evoke a sense of controlled menace when he's actually allowed to speak, those moments are simply too few and far between. Herzog does manage to spark a few shivers while revealing his character's brutal backstory, but it's his hulking, uncharismatic henchmen who hog most of the screen time, leaving us with little to savor in terms of a genuinely frightening antagonist.
For a while, at least, McQuarrie makes up for the film's shortcomings by focusing on the mysterious Reacher, a genuinely fascinating character played with authority and dry humor by Cruise (and supported by Robert Duvall in a small yet memorable role). Although some critics have complained that Cruise doesn't strike the same physically imposing stance that Reacher does in Child's novels, he's still agile and cunning enough to be a believable threat. Had circumstances yielded a stronger first outing, one could easily see Jack Reacher becoming a lucrative film franchise; after all, the character's wandering nature sets up a world of possibilities. Yet even with a competent director and Cruise leading the charge, at least in this incarnation, Jack Reacher probably won't end up becoming the next James Bond. Instead, he'll more likely be remembered as the next Remo Williams.