For those who never saw 2012's "Jack Reacher," Tom Cruise played a former Army military police commander who, disillusioned with the job, grabbed his toothbrush and hit the road. In "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," it's been ages since Cruise's character was discharged, but military types keep trying to salute him, and every time someone in uniform calls him by his former rank, "Major Reacher," he stiffens a little and responds, "ex-major."
Cruise has been Hollywood's top gun for the better part of 30 years, taking no fewer than 17 blockbusters across the $100 million mark in that time. But strike the "Mission: Impossible" series from the charts, and his numbers have been way down in the decade since "War of the Worlds." (The original "Jack Reacher" made just $80 million, barely half of what "The Firm" earned in 1993.) And while Cruise himself doesn't seem to age from one film to the next, perhaps it's time we reclassify the one-time boy wonder as an "ex-major" star.
Yes, he's kept us entertained as "Mission's" Ethan Hunt, but in his desperation to generate another franchise, the actor – whose career longevity owes to a savvy understanding of his brand – enlists director Edward Zwick to help him resuscitate the role that suits his appeal least. Zwick excels at epic pageantry; his previous Cruise collaboration, "The Last Samurai," matched that quality to the star's persona. But the helmer has never made a flat-out action movie, and he turns out to be shockingly ill-suited for the sort of terse rough-and-tumble that a Jack Reacher outing demands.
Christopher McQuarrie, by contrast, managed to wring an impressive car chase, a high-caliber finale, and several other intense set pieces from his meager source material the first time around (his reward: directing Cruise in "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation"). Alas, Zwick barely manages to tickle our adrenaline, waiting till the climactic showdown amid a New Orleans Halloween parade to deliver a sequence that could legitimately register as memorable.
Otherwise, Reacher is handily upstaged by the other characters here, most notably his 20-years-younger replacement, Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders, terrific), who looks like a cross between "The Matrix"'s Trinity and Demi Moore in "A Few Good Men" and who suffers none of the limits on her own personality wattage.
Immediately following a cold-opening reminder of how Reacher deals with corruption among those in positions of authority, the film softens its drifter protagonist ever so slightly via a series of half-flirty phone calls between him and Turner, in which Reacher promises to look her up in the event that he ever makes it to Washington, D.C. But when he arrives in the nation's capital, in the very next scene, he learns that Turner has been relieved of her position and court-martialed for treason three days prior. More surprising still, he discovers a surprising detail about his own past: Evidently, an ex-prostitute has filed a paternity claim against him, alleging he's the father of her now-15-year-old daughter Samantha (Danika Yarosh). And since we know so little about Reacher, there's no way to assess whether or not the claim is true, except to bring her along.
Indeed, one of the things that makes the character so appealing to his fans is that he has no attachments – he's an avenging conscience without the Achilles' heel of socialization. Give him a child, however, and things could quickly devolve into the sort of manipulative melodrama that befell fellow tough guy Jack Bauer anytime his daughter Kim turned up on "24."
Let's not forget that Zwick and longtime collaborator Marshall Herskovitz got their start writing for television, which seems to be the primary influence on this strangely uncinematic action movie. Though framed in widescreen and lensed by Oliver Wood (DP on the first three Bourne movies), "Never Go Back" displays none of the style or audacity that lenser Caleb Deschanel brought to the earlier installment. The sequel looks almost grimy by comparison, relying overly on closeups of a star whose range of expressiveness has been limited to two signature moves: a meaningful jaw clench or a well-time narrowing of the eyes. Cruise can still be counted on to frequently sprint on-camera, but here he comes across as a shadow of the star we've known him to be.
"TOM CRUISE is JACK REACHER," read the ads for the 2012 film, and yet, a more accurate description might have been, "TOM CRUISE pretends to be JACK REACHER." The character that was an awkward fit for the actor four years ago seems to be even more so now, if only because Cruise's greatest asset is his charisma, while Reacher is a stoic, stone-cold heavy. From Bond to Bourne, such action heroes have become the cliche these days, showing an almost sociopathic lack of feeling as they go about their efficient ultraviolence. But Cruise, who always seems to be half-smiling in everything else he does, seems far too serious in the role, leaving room for the ladies, Smulders and Yarosh, to steal the show.
Better to leave the ruthlessness to the villain, a mercenary hit man (Patrick Heusinger) hired by a corrupt military contractor. The whole mess began with the deaths of two soldiers under Turner's command – deaths for which she is being held accountable – and as the mystery unfolds, we learn that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that anyone who catches wind of the massive conspiracy, including Turner and Reacher, ends up in the hit man's cross-hairs. The fact that the scenes are set in three of the most tired action-movie venues imaginable – a kitchen, a warehouse, and a shipping dock – just goes to show the sequel's lack of inspiration. Even the New Orleans finale is technically a rehash of something James Bond went through in 1973's "Live and Let Die," and again, as recently as the superior rooftop opening of last year's "Spectre." Cruise and company should have taken their own advice: Never go back.