Saturday, December 22, 2012

More Than a Name: JACK REACHER

There’s a scene in the middle of Jack Reacher in which the man himself (Tom Cruise), a former military investigator now poking around in the aftermath of a seemingly random shooting, finds himself confronted by two toughs ready to clobber him over the head. Reacher falls back in a confined space and his attackers, inexperienced and overeager, swing wildly. Reacher moves precisely and quickly, giving his attackers just enough room to inadvertently beat each other up, leaving him free to continue his investigation. This is a fun scene, well choreographed and a nice blend of danger mixed with a small amount of humor. But it is also a good enough metaphor for the film itself and the way it goes about working. It’s hardly original material, but it’s well written, quick-witted (at times) and precise, ready to lean back and let the plotting fall into place with good instincts. It’s a fine thriller, crisp, quickly paced, and with a smartly plotted mystery.

It starts with a terrifying act of violence. A sniper shoots into a crowd, seemingly at random, resulting in five deaths. The man the police take into custody does not speak when interrogated. He scrawls on a piece of paper a simple directive: Get Jack Reacher. They don’t have to look very far. He’s already on his way. What’s his connection to the accused? It’s all a tad more complicated than I need to get into here. Let’s just say that Reacher agrees to help the defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) investigate the case, while navigating the evidence provided by a perceptive detective (David Oyelowo) and the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins). How this seemingly open and shut case soon involves tails and goons (Jai Courtney and Vladimir Sizov), hired toughs (Josh Helman and Michael Raymond-James), an in-over-her-head girl (Alexia Fast), and a shadowy, mostly fingerless man played by the beloved German filmmaker Werner Herzog is complexity that eventually gives way to a grim, pulpy simplicity.

What holds the film steady on its course is the constant focus of Jack Reacher. As played by Cruise, the man’s a steady rock, a determined investigator who lives off the grid and shows up to help here out of a sense of duty. He’s no-nonsense, but with some terse quips here and there that are welcome wry one-liners. This character’s already appeared in a popular and ongoing series of novels by Lee Child from which I’ve meant to read one or two for a while now. Here Christopher McQuarrie, a fine screenwriter in his second directorial outing, gives the whole production the kind of easy familiarity and relentless steady momentum that drives us inevitably forward through the tangles of mystery, inevitable precisely because of the character at the center. Reacher feels like a character who enters fully formed. We know that he will get to the bottom of the mystery precisely because he’s so determined, part Shane, part Dirty Harry, a man who’s no (or rather, rarely a) loose cannon vigilante, but a man looking for justice with comprehensive training to back up his professed skills.

Cop and lawyer procedurals have told similar stories, investigating shocking crimes that aren’t as simple as they seem thousands of times over, an hour at a time, on TVs worldwide. What’s better here is the weight given to violence, a proper sorrow and horror. The opening shootings are scary enough (especially haunting in light of the many real life random massacres we’ve seen this year), but as we return to the event as the characters try to learn more, we’re given a montage that reveals who the victims were, examining their humanity with unexpected depth. Later on in the film, when a likable side character is suddenly murdered, it’s a sharp pain of a moment, unexpectedly fast and upsetting. How often do mysteries treat the deaths involved as mere plot point? Here, they’re felt more deeply than usual, which gives a heft to the unraveling mystery it might not otherwise have.

McQuarrie has made a fine example of slick popcorn filmmaking that’s serious about its entertainment. It doesn’t shortchange its subject by cheapening it. Instead, he allows the horror of the inciting incident to inform the intensity with which the audience is able to root for Reacher to untangle the motivations and conspiracies behind it. The movie embraces genre tropes a bit too much in the climax with what was an enjoyable investigation taking a turn into a standard action movie showdown, but McQuarrie never loses his refreshingly steady eye for framing the events on screen. This is a solid, well-built example of Hollywood craftsmanship that serves up some unsettling material and then brings in a movie star hero written with the right set of smarts to settle things back down again.

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