Tom Cruise actually makes ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ worth seeing

By Dan Cava

October 21, 2016

“I’m kinda done with Tom Cruise.”

I can’t tell you how often I hear that upon the mere mention of an upcoming Tom Cruise film. I get it. The whole couch-jumping thing from way back. Scientology and whatnot. The unnerving intensity that confirms, for some, that he’s repressing some deep cultic glitch in his celebrity cyborg wiring.

As time has gone on, the Cruise-bashing has worn thin for me. It’s like people insisting that they don’t like the word “moist,” an enormously idiosyncratic position that everyone seems to think is unique to them at birth, but is actually a consensus that people have absorbed, forgetting it’s internet-suggested origins. Cruise-hating, like moist-hating, is now just what you say when it comes up, especially if you can manage to say it first.

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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

I’m not going to mount a defense of Tom Cruise as a person because I personally don’t know him. And I’m not even going to mount much of a defense of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, which, with its arm-snapping action and minor emotional undercurrent, is decent overall. Instead, I want to use Jack Reacher: Never Go Back as an object lesson in my mini-crusade to remind people that Tom Cruise’s body of work continues to be what it always has been: worth seeing.

A sequel to 2012’s franchise starter Jack Reacher, Never Go Back has neither the grace nor the wit of its predecessor. It trades in the first film’s fun, 70s-movie genre awareness for a harsher Bourne-esque chase fest. The story is fine, consisting of the War on Terror ingredients that Hollywood never seems to tire of and that have lost all their political edge by virtue of sheer repetition: smuggled weapons, troubled war vets, military-industrial corruption, gray-haired bureaucrats on the take, rinse and repeat. The script as a whole is serviceable but overly-serious, which might explain why Cruise (the movie’s producer as well as star) brought in Edward Zwick to direct.

Zwick is often seen at the helm of sterner fare like Glory, Blood Diamond, and Cruise’s own The Last Samurai; and his camera (with the help of Bourne cinematographer Oliver Wood) definitely knows its way around an action scene. When Never Go Back is in go-mode, as it often is, the movie is pretty easy to watch. Pure momentum carries us from one plot point to the next. The fight scenes are logical and loaded with gasp-inducing moments of raw physical impact. But that *wink* that marked Reacher’s last adventure (written and directed by The Mission: Impossible 5’s Christopher McQuarrie) is largely gone. Half the movie’s jokes feel like “jokes,” and only Cruise’s charm rescues the other half.

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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

And there we have it. Tom Cruise, rescuing the dialogue and elevating a forgettable run-of-the-mill actioner into something that is, once again, worth seeing. Cruise leans hard into a grimmer portrayal of the film’s eponymous hero. Since the last film, Reacher somehow seems to have lost the spring in his step, making Never Go Back feel at times more like a third movie than a second. But, man…Cruise really pulls it off. This version of Reacher seems haunted and driven. He executes justice, but perhaps because execution is the only thing he’s good at, and he’s afraid of becoming an evil man. None of this spelled out yet it’s all there, not in the backstory, but in Cruise’s nervy, compressed performance.

When a baddie tells Reacher he sounds afraid of a violent encounter, Reacher offers a correction, “That’s excitement.” We believe him. When the movie’s blunt script asks us to believe that Reacher secretly longs for a family, we believe him. When the fight choreography asks us to accept that an unarmed man in a tight space can take out four guys with guns, we believe him.

See that’s the thing. The only line I hear as often as “I’m done with Tom Cruise,” is the caveat that follows after I mention the Mission: Impossible movies, or Minority Report, or Collateral, or The Last Samurai, or Edge of Tomorrow, or A Few Good Men or any but a handful of Tom Cruise movies from the last thirty years: “Well THAT one was actually pretty good.”

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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Note the “actually” because it means two things. First, it’s supposed to mean the movie in question is an exception to the rule, which it isn’t. It’s the rule. Second, it means what “actual” actually means: in fact. In fact, as Never Go Back shows, we are most certainly not “done with Tom Cruise.” Tom Cruise is still exceptional at what he does and his movies are always better for it. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is not even close to great. It’s barely even good. But, thanks to the unique and consistent skills of its (admit it) very reliable star, it is definitely worth seeing.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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