Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" (2016)

Starring Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders and Danika Yarosh
Written by Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick and Marshal Herskovitz
Directed by Edward Zwick
Rated PG-13: Language, violence
Running Time: 118 Minutes

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) has gone back to his drifter lifestyle after helping to take down a corrupt sheriff who led a human trafficking scheme. He develops a friendly phone-relationship with his army contact, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), and he decides to visit her in Washington, DC. But when he arrives, he discovers that Turner has been arrested and charged with treason.

Despite her requests that he stay away, Reacher digs into Turner's case and quickly uncovers a conspiracy to frame Turner. But Reacher gets more than he bargained for. The conspirators have dug into his past and found a weakness: A 15-year-old girl named Samantha (Danika Yarosh) who might just be the pressure point they need to get Reacher off their backs.

Or so they think.

Oh boy. 2012's "Jack Reacher" was a well-made little thriller. It wasn't spectacularly original nor was it the finest example of the genre, but it was a great place for a franchise to start and my initial opinion on it warmed even more on subsequent viewings. 2016's sequel, "Never Go Back" is everything that movie isn't. While the original film featured a hard-edged sense of cool, anchored by a coiled-snake performance by Cruise, "Never Go Back" is thriller that isn't thrilling and a mystery that's never intriguing.

Cruise is still a fine choice to play author Lee Child's most enduring creation. I honestly don't care what anyone says about Cruise's height or build compared to the literary version; Cruise is absolutely fine in this role. Or rather, he was in the first film. Here, he seems bored. In the first film, Cruise seemed like he was just waiting to be unleashed, that his quiet was calculated and at any second he could unleash either a stinging rebuke or a vicious right-cross — and you weren't ever sure which.

But in "Never Go Back," Cruise often just stares straight forward with little sense of menace or intelligence, like he neither understands nor cares what the script requires of him at any given moment. It's one of the actor's more disappointing performances in a career full of intriguingly watchable performances. It's become something of a cliche to talk about Cruise's dedication to his work versus his rather ridiculous and borderline insane real-life persona, but this is the first time in a good while that I've felt he dropped the ball.

On a technical level, "Never Go Back" is proficient but unremarkable. It has none of the artistry that elevated the first "Reacher" over its B-movie aesthetic, with even the fights and action sequences feeling perfunctory and ultimately basic. Director Edward Zwick displays none of the sense of cool that Chris McQuarrie had on the first film, churning out a thriller that feels more at home on the direct-to-DVD market than a feature film with a $60 million budget. Even Henry Jackman's score is thoroughly anonymous, eschewing Joe Kraemer's intriguing practice of not scoring action sequences to heighten tension, and Jackman's a composer whose work I've enjoyed previously (notably, good portions of his score for "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" and "GI Joe: Retaliation" as well as "X-Men: First Class" and "Captain America: Civil War.")

If there's a bright spot in all this mediocrity, it's Cobie Smulders as Major Turner. Although the script throws her uncomfortably into some scenes where she's forced into a somewhat stereotypical mom role, she handles it all very well. Smulders is at turns fierce, competent and gives a real sense that she not only inhabits the character but wanted to be there — unlike Cruise this time around. Even saddled with some eye-rollingly limp dialogue, she earns every legitimately cool moment she has. Smulders has been a bright spot in her TV sitcom work and her unfortunately limited role in the Marvel universe, and it's nice to see her getting a bigger part here.

The best part of "Never Go Back" is its opening scene, which is basically just the first minute of the film's trailer.

Unfortunately for someone like me who greatly enjoyed the first "Jack Reacher" film, this sequel is much more in line with what every fan of Child's book series feared about that first movie — that it would be a limp cash-in with little of the fun and wit that makes the book series so popular and enjoyable. It's a rare misfire for Cruise, and an unfortunate misstep in what could be a hidden gem franchise for action movie fans. If there's a third movie in the series, hopefully whoever makes it can correct course.

See Also
Jack Reacher (2012)