The opening scene of "Jack Reacher" is uncanny in its disquiet similarity to tragic current events. Mirroring too closely for comfort the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, a sniper drives to an isolated section of a car park and proceeds to take down five seemingly random passersby across from the Pittsburgh Pirates' PNC Park. Discussions follow in regards to a motive and the killers' psychological state, but fortunately the parallelism ends there. The remainder of the picture, an adaptation of the novel "One Shot" by Lee Childs, written for the screen and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (2000's cult crime item "The Way of the Gun
"), is a fairly standard pulpy potboiler of intrigue and double-crosses, albeit one with a high level of competency and a killer 1970s-style car chase. It begins to wilt by the third act, but at least keeps up appearances as a watchable alternative to 2012's beyond-inept Tyler Perry thriller "Alex Cross
When five people are left dead, the victims of a mass shooting, some fancy forensic work with a quarter dropped into a parking meter expediently uncovers a culprit, an unhinged Iraq War veteran named James Mark Barr (Joseph Sikora). When Barr requests the aid of off-the-grid ex-military officer Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) before slipping into a coma, the mystery man suddenly shows up. Jack has no idea why this stranger would ask for himhe assumes James is guilty and wouldn't mind if he gets the death penaltyuntil a much more intricate plot begins to form around himself and Defense Attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike). Suddenly, it looks like at least one of the murders wasn't random, and may not have been carried out by Barr at all.
Readers of "One Shot" and the other novels featuring skull-cracking antihero Jack Reacher have been critical of the casting of Tom Cruise (2011's "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol
"), whose brown-haired, slightly built, 5'6" stature does not exactly resemble a character described as a hulking, blond, 6'4", 250lb. brick wall. For the purposes of the film, however, Cruise makes it work. He is the consummate professional, an actor who somehow molds himself to fit the roles he's playing. Reacher has a cutthroat sense of humor, but is also a gruffer kind of guy than Cruise usually plays, his trademark smile replaced by a steely determination to get to the bottom of this undercover plot. As for why he's dropped out of sight after leaving the Army two years earlier? No better explanation is given other than that he likes flying under the radar and is now used to the lifestyle. Otherwise, he is an intentional cipher.
"Jack Reacher" features a borderline-sleazy premise in that it uses mass murder as the jumping-off point for a popcorn movie with no great thematic aims or purpose besides pure entertainment. Still, it is well-made, from a sequence that journeys into the backgrounds of its victims as they were each led to the fateful moments of their deaths, to an outstanding car chase through the nighttime city streets of Pittsburgh, scored to nothing more than the roars of the engine. A few dialogue exchanges are enjoyably acerbic, as when Reacher hands Helen a folded-up note. "Hold on to it," he instructs. "It's a motive." "What are we playing? 'Clue'?" asks Helen in return. Also worth noting: a suitably off-beat Werner Herzog as the blind-eyed puppet master who once chewed off his own fingers to evade frostbite, and scene-stealer Alexia Fast (2007's "Kickin' It Old Skool
"), giving shades of palpable sadness and low self-esteem to teenage girl Sandy, who gets in over her head when she is hired for a hundred bucks to try and set up Reacher.
If writer-director Christopher McQuarrie captivates as Reacher works his way through a corkscrew criminal case where nothing is quite as it seems, "Jack Reacher" falls into more typical, dumbed-down conceits by the finale, with Helen held hostage and threatened as the bad guy prattles on, in love with his own voice. Rosamund Pike (2012's "Wrath of the Titans
") wavers hesitantly in her role as Helen, in control in certain scenes and looking like a wide-eyed doe caught in the headlights the rest of the time. She doesn't completely rid herself of the obvious pressures of sharing the screen with an icon of Tom Cruise's stature. If "Jack Reacher" falls into more predictable patterns, it does open up some potentially fascinating avenues to take the title character if this were to turn into an ongoing franchise. The possibilities are there; now let's see if there's an audience for this retro thriller throwback.