There was a time not so long ago when we were all OK with our action movies being stupid. A time before the likes of The Dark Knight or Skyfall or even the deceptively smart Avengers. A time when all an action movie needed was a big, charismatic name actor on the screen, some solid action sequences and just enough competent writing to get you from one action sequence to another.
Those were simpler times, and while I'm not sure we should look back at them and wish action cinema would revert to its old ways, it's nice to actually not have to think every once in a while. Jack Reacher is the kind of film where thinking doesn't pay off at all. Thinking will get you nowhere with this movie, but not thinking pays off in spades.
According to a reliable source (my mother) Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a character from a series of wildly popular books written by Lee Child. Also according to her (I brought her to the movie as she's way more knowledgeable than I) the film is a pretty good representation of the books. Jack Reacher is an ex-military police officer who has gone off the grid and helps random people using his badass crime solving skills and his yearning for justice. In this particular case he arrive sin Pittsburgh after he finds out someone from a previous case he worked on was involved in sniping murder. Joining forces with Helen (Rosammund Pike), the DA's daughter who is defending the alleged killer, he starts to unravel a conspiracy deeper than just a crazed shooter.
Really the plot gives up most of its twists and turns early on as if to say "we know you figured it out already, let's just get to the action." There's very little you won't see coming in the film from a mile away, but it's truly not that big of an issue. You'll want the story to keep unfolding anyway just because it's damn fun to watch. Instead of trying to cover up its relatively weak mystery the film brazenly displays it like a badge of honor. The story is dumb and some of the characters are even dumber, but everyone knows it so there's not much reason to complain.
Even the truly over-the-top aspects of the film manage to work. Werner Herzog (yes, that Werner Herzog) plays a villain so odd and ridiculous you'd expect him to hop out of a Roger Moore Bond film not a modern action piece. Called The Zek, his character is beyond ridiculous, coming off more laughable than threatening and yet working so well that you can't help but enjoy it when he starts describing how he had to gnaw his fingers off in a Siberian prison. He's delightfully campy and played to the absolute hilt.
Cruise on the other hand busts out all the charm to turn what could have been an absolutely dreadful screenplay into some of the best one-liners this side of Sean Connery. According to my aforementioned motherly source (she liked the film, by the way) Cruise is pretty much the epitome of Jack Reacher except for the fact that he looks nothing like the character from the books. Cruise swaggers on screen with an arrogant cockiness that somehow instantly endears you to the character and basically spends the rest of the film kicking ass, being a dick and charming the pants off of everyone in the theater. There's a reason this man could climb his career back out of the crazy pit he dug it into and it's because he's just so damn good on screen. The rest of the cast is basically there to receive his one-liners and try not to break out laughing at the stupid stuff the screenplay has everyone say.
Of course what's an action movie without action. While Jack Reacher is a long shot from the likes of a Michael Bay film it's action is still solid. Hitting the sweet spot between grounded fight scenes and Reacher being nigh-invulnerable the movie delivers some brutal battles. More impressive is an old school car chase with nary a digital effect (Cruise did a lot of his own driving) and no score over it all. I was instantly reminded of Bullit's classic car chase through the streets of San Francisco as the cars veered around sharp corners in an old-school sloppiness you just don't see in modern action films. Screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie is going to be delivering some great stuff in the future if this is how he handles action.
Is Jack Reacher an instant action classic? No, not really. As stated before, it is really stupid and the screenplay is truly awful at certain points to the extent that the audience was snickering for a good chunk of the film. Dumb action is enjoyable, but this dumb does get a little old at points, especially on the few occasions when the film actually does try to be a bit smarter. Those are some rough patches, but for the most part they're quickly glazed over as more action, quips and Tom Cruise being awesome fly onto the screen to save the day.